OMAHA -- Four years ago, after the Beijing Olympic Games, the American men’s breaststroke landscape looked like it was going to change dramatically.
Brendan Hansen decided to end his illustrious career after a disappointing fourth-place showing in the 100-meter breaststroke. In the 2004 Games, the former Texas Longhorn standout earned a silver in that event and a bronze in the 200 breaststroke.
Hansen’s breaststroke rival, Eric Shanteau, had a career in limbo as well after the Beijing Games. Shortly before the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, Shanteau had been diagnosed with testicular cancer, and after the Games in Beijing, he began treatment.
Although the future of the United States men’s breaststroke appeared to be ready for a transition four years ago, a familiar scene appeared earlier this week at the CenturyLink Center at the Olympic Swim Trials.
Hansen decided to make a comeback last year while Shanteau made a full recovery and also returned to competitive swimming. The two staples in breaststroke were going to be racing each other yet again.
In the 100 breaststroke final, they finished 1-2 with Hansen clocking in at 59.68 seconds, and Shanteau touching the wall at 1 minute, 0.15 seconds. Their performances earned them both spots on the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team, pending approval from the U.S. Olympic Committee.
It seemed a similar result was on track for the 200.
But when Hansen touched the wall, he didn’t see his name in the top two.
That surprised Hansen. But what was even more shocking? His long-time rival’s name wasn’t listed with one of the fastest times, either.
“I think you guys are as surprised as I am right now,” Hansen said with a bewildered look on his face after the 200 final. “I just can’t believe Eric and I aren’t swimming the 200. He’s in the same boat, too. It’s tough. It’s tough as you get older to swim the 200 breaststroke three times and try to do it right.
So who took center stage during the event’s award ceremony?
Scott Weltz, who finished 37th in the event back in the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials and didn’t even have a profile in the media guide to reference. Weltz who swam collegiately at a school not known for its swimming — the University of California, Davis — led nearly wire-to-wire and broke the 2 minute, 10 second mark in the event.
Finishing second was Clarke Burkle, who finished fifth in the event at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials. Burkle narrowly out-touched the prominent breaststroke duo and gave United States another Olympic breaststroke qualifier.
Yes, the breaststroke proved to be wide-open after all.
Even though Weltz was a long shot before the race, based on his swim Friday night, Hansen said this victory was not as surprising to him as it might be to the general public.
“I didn’t think Scott Weltz had it in him,” Hansen said before adding, “He’s having a great meet and he swam like a big-time swimmer. He came out there and I guess he lead the race the whole way. I’m disappointed I’m not going, but to have two guys under 2:10 is a good thing.”
Even Weltz himself was a little surprised and admitted he was a little in awe before the race after realizing he was in a lane in-between his two idols in the final.
“I’m actually glad I’m going on a team with Brendan Hansen and Eric Shanteau,” Weltz said. “I’ve watched those guys swimming for a while, look up to them. I enjoyed being in the finals between them. My parents got a lot of air time on TV because of that. There are so many good leaders like that.”
But how did the swimmer who swam at a program that was on the Division II level just three years ago and had always focused on the Individual Medley make the quantum leap from 37th place to first in the breaststroke?
Well, he said his coach, Peter Motekaitis, who was the only person to recruit Weltz out of high school, deserves the credit.
Unlike Shanteau and Hansen, who train with powerhouse clubs — Shanteau is with the Trojuan Swim Club and Hansen trains with Longhorn Aquatics — Weltz prepared for the Trials on his own.
“You know, it’s true,” Weltz said. “Pete was the only person that recruited me out of high school. He obviously saw something maybe early on. You know, I always kind of wanted to go to Texas, things like that, Cal, Stanford, because you go to the big schools and train with these guys. But, you know, when I came back and knew I would be training by myself, Pete said, ‘You’re going to be mentally tougher than anyone else there because you do this by yourself.’ ”
Hansen and Shanteau will have a new pair of swimmers joining them in London. Despite being a little disappointed in not getting two shots at individual gold, Hansen said he can’t be happier for the two new kids on the block.
“He’s a great kid, he’s super nice, and he’s going to swim his guts out and fast for us,” Hansen said. “I’ll make sure he does.”