LONDON — Smart money was not on Brendan Hansen to medal in the men’s 100-meter breaststroke.
In lane 8 after barely qualifying for the final — finishing sixth in the first semifinal heat and saying, “It’s going to be close,” as he watched the second heat on a TV monitor — Hansen’s chances of winning a fifth Olympic medal were slim. In the lane next to him was his nemesis, two-time defending Olympic gold medalist Kosuke Kitajima, the man who had deprived Hansen of gold in 2004 and 2008.
But the lane assigned to the slowest qualifier turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the breaststroker from Texas.
“Out in lane 8, I was able to swim my own race and put the blinders on,” he said.
At the 50-meter mark, Hansen was in sixth — right where everyone expected a lane-8 swimmer to be. But then he turned on the jets and pulled his way back into the race, touching the wall in 59.49 for third. He was over a full second behind the world record setting swim of Cameron van der Burgh from South Africa. But Hansen didn’t care.
“It’s the shiniest bronze medal I’ll ever have, I can guarantee you that,” he said before walking to the podium to collect it. “It’s probably the hardest medal that I’ve ever had to work for.”
This is not a comment 30-year-old Hansen would have made in 2004 when he was a favorite to win the 100 breaststroke but settled for silver behind Kitajima. Back then, he was crushed not to win gold. A few days later, Hansen took bronze in the 200.
In 2008, he went to Beijing for redemption. But he was burned out. He made the finals in the 100. But before the race, he sat on the blocks and stared at the lane ahead of him.
“Why am I still doing this after 26 years?” he wondered.
He dove in and finished fourth, then managed to hold it together for the medley relay — “because it was Michael’s gold medal, and I was not going to let him be denied of that.”
Then Hansen was done. He needed to find out who he was outside swimming, the sport that had consumed his life.
He came home from Beijing and took a marketing job with a sports drink company, then did swimming clinics, made appearances, coached swimming, and competed in triathlons. He also got married. After two years, he had done everything he wanted to do.
In December 2010, he decided to focus on swimming again — not to win another Olympic medal but just to see how it felt. Maybe it would improve his triathlon results. But by February 2011, it was apparent that he wasn’t just swimming for fitness. His wife, Martha, finally asked him if, when he turned 40, he would regret not trying for the 2012 Olympics.
“I looked her straight in the eyes and said yes,” said Hansen. “She said, ‘Then you’re doing this, why are we kidding ourselves?’”
With his excitement for swimming back, he trained with a new focus, researching better training techniques, eating better, taking better care of himself, and having fun. Results followed. Less than a year after he dove back into the pool, he won the 100 and 200 breaststroke national titles in 2011. At 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, he won the 100.
Coming to London, Hansen was not an individual medal favorite. That role fell on Kitajima and 2011 world championship medalists Fabio Scozzoli and van der Burgh. Then after the 100 breaststroke semifinals, Hansen moved even farther off the medal radar.
“When [Brendan] was sixth in the first heat and you’ve got eight other guys shooting at that time coming up in the next heat, chances were very slim of him getting in,” said his coach Eddie Reese.
When Hansen’s time did hold up, and he had secured a spot in the final, Reese knew what his swimmer needed to do. On the eve of the final, Hansen needed to change his stroke.
“He was going into the water instead of over the water,” explained Reese. “We knew if we didn’t [fix it], he didn’t have a chance.”
Hours before the final, Hansen was working on the change in the pool. Then before he walked out onto the pool deck for the final, Reese reminded him that he could “do it the right way.”
Out on the pool deck with a deafening roar filling the Aquatic Center, Hansen again looked down the lane — just like he did in Beijing. But instead of feeling burned out, he felt on fire. He looked at Kitajima next to him and said, “I’m going to beat you.”
“That’s the mentality of a guy who’s going to put himself on the medal stand,” said Hansen after he beat Kitajima by 0.30 seconds and won the bronze. “And that’s the difference that this whole comeback was all about.”
Of all the trophies in Hansen’s collection now — two Olympic golds (2004 and 2008 medley relays), a silver, and two bronzes, plus multiple world championship medals and a couple of former world records — Hansen might put the 2012 Olympic bronze at the front of the display. It validated his comeback.
“I really wanted to say I was going to do something and follow through with it,” he said. “And that bronze medal tonight did that.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.