Medals by Hansen, Schmitt signify changing of guard at Olympics
LONDON -- Within 10 minutes of each other, Brendan Hansen won what's likely his last individual Olympic medal and Allison Schmitt won the first of what could be several.
USA Swimming is going through a changing of the guard at these Olympics. Its all-time leading medal winners, Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin, are on the way out. Ryan Lochte is settling in as the world's best swimmer. Missy Franklin is the new "it" girl.
And on a night when the big stories were at the beginning (Dana Vollmer's world-record 100-meter butterfly) and end (the payback relay) of the session, the in-between feats of Hansen (bronze in the 100 breaststroke) and Schmitt (silver in the 400 freestyle) shouldn't be forgotten.
So much about Hansen's boastful bronze befitted his bittersweet career, which included two heartbreaking third-place finishes at the 2000 Olympic trials (where only the top two make the Olympic team). Hansen, now 30 and back from retirement, squeaked into the final of his only individual event of his third Olympics by 11 hundredths of a second. That put him in lane eight, right next to Japan's four-time Olympic gold medalist Kosuke Kitajima, his rival for the better part of the last decade.
"I looked at the guy next to me who was the Olympic champion, and I said, 'I'm going to beat you,'" Hansen said. "That's the mentality of a guy that's going to put himself on the medal stand. And that's the difference that this whole comeback was all about."
It was Kitajima whose victory screams rang in Hansen's ears at the 2004 Olympics. In Athens, Hansen entered as the world-record holder in the 100 and 200 breast, only to settle for silver and bronze to Kitajima's double gold. In Beijing, Hansen was fourth in his only individual swim, behind the golden Kitajima in the 100 breast.
In Hansen's first two Olympics, second, third and fourth were disappointments. Here in London, coming back from sixth after the first 50 meters to steal a bronze was remarkable.
"I knew at the 50 I was going to be close to the lead because I turned and saw everybody, and I knew I was with Kosuke, so I was like, 'All right, let's do this. I'm on,'" said Hansen, beaten only by new world-record holder Cameron van der Burgh of South Africa and Aussie Christian Sprenger (Kitajima was fifth). "It's the shiniest bronze medal I'll ever have, I'll guarantee you that. It's probably the hardest medal I've ever had to work for."
Schmitt worked plenty hard for her silver in the 400 freestyle. The final was seen as a head-to-head with France's Camille Muffat, and that's exactly what it turned out to be. Muffat was first at every split. Schmitt was second at every split, never more than .55 behind but never less than .18.
"I knew it was going to be close before it even happened, so I just raced the whole time," Schmitt said, seemingly still catching her breath several minutes after the race. "I'm excited to get my first individual medal."
Even as the margin grew, from the 150-meter mark to 350, Schmitt fought. And in the final 50, it wouldn't have taken much body English to distort one's view and imagine Schmitt finally passing the Frenchwoman.
"It was tough," Schmitt said. "I could feel it, the pain coming in."
It was too much. Schmitt cut .23 off the lead after the final turn but ran out of water. Hansen described his swim as "gutsy," and that precisely embodied the energy-filled 22-year-old Schmitt, too.
But while Hansen's Olympic career likely ends with the 400 medley relay on Saturday, Schmitt still has two more events in London and, she hopes, many more in four and eight years' time.
She's the American record holder in the 200 free (which she swam in Beijng, getting ninth). That final is Tuesday. She's also part of the 4x200 free relay, whose final is Wednesday. Schmitt, who also won a 4x200 free relay bronze in 2008 and a 4x100 free relay bronze on Saturday, now seeks gold.
"We'll see in two days," she said.