London Preview: Men's 100 Breaststroke
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Pop quiz: Who is oldest male to win an individual Olympic swimming gold? Any guesses? Jason Lezak? He won his in a relay. Aaron Peirsol? He may be wise, but he is no old man of the sea. Some may be surprised, but here’s the answer: Gary Hall Jr. at age 29 was the oldest male Olympic swimming champion. No 30-year-old male has ever stood atop an Olympic swimming victor’s podium.
But don’t give up, guys. That could change in the men’s 100 breaststroke.
One American breaststroke sprinter, Brendan Hansen, is 30, and Eric Shanteau is not far behind at 28. Both are headstrong. Granted, they will be competing against a tough, uber-competitive field (Hansen is our highest current world ranked swimmer at #4, while Shanteau is #11.) But these are two of our most talented, consistent, mentally tough swimmers, sharpened over years of trials and tribulations and topsy-turvy careers.
No athlete at the London Olympics has gone through more than Eric Shanteau. In 2004, Shanteau finished 3rd at the Olympic Trials -- twice. In 2008, he was diagnosed with cancer – and still competed in the Olympics. Now, in 2012, Shanteau is back, cancer free, and ready, itching, excited to swim. Though some may say Shanteau’s better shot at gold was in the 200m distance, after Scott Weltz and Clark Burckle surprised the field at Trials, Shanteau’s Olympic chance must come in the sprint. It should be an interesting training period for Shanteau. He’s got only the sprint to focus on. Speed and quickness will be his focus. We could see dividends of a sprint-focused approach come London.
For comeback “kid” Brendan Hansen, the road has been paved with rivalries and unfinished business. Hansen has been vocal about his desire to race Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima at these coming Olympics. He’ll get his shot. Like Shanteau, Hansen will compete only in the 100m distance. Interestingly, Kitajima was in the stands when Hansen swam the 200m distance at the Olympic Trials (as NBC was consistently pointing out during their prime time coverage). Though Kitajima was there to cheer on teammates and training partners, maybe this added a small layer of intrigue into this rivalry?
In London, Kitajima (currently ranked #1 in the world) will attempt to become the sport’s first male back-to-back-to-back defending Olympic champion. No male has defended an Olympic title in three consecutive Olympics (Kitajima might get the stiffest competition from his own teammate, Ryo Tateishi.) Brendan Hansen has been on a mission since bursting back on the competitive scene one year ago. Where will his mission take him?
The 100m breaststroke will be the most emotional event contested in London. As all swim fans remember with a heavy heart, just two months ago, Alexander Dale Oen passed away in Flagstaff, Arizona on a training trip. The Norwegian swimmer and defending World Champion in this event will be missed. It’s difficult not to imagine that competitors, fans, coaches, and the media will think of him leading up to the Games. Many will always remember the hero of Norway who, just days after the horrific shooting that occurred in his home country, surged to a 100m breaststroke world championship in dedication to his brethren. He was a great champion, and he will be missed at these Games.
The event has a smorgasbord of storylines: A 28-year-old cancer survivor. A 30-year-old comeback kid. A two-time defending Olympic champion going for an unprecedented third gold. A Japanese teammate attempting to knock off his own nation’s superstar. A whole field within grasp of the Olympic title. And a tragic and untimely loss of a world champion.
Ultimately, Hansen and Shanteau have been through the Olympic emotional meat grinder before. And it is because of this that both have a shot to rise above. Make no doubt: there is no better duo to represent our nation with class and articulation than these two. No matter the result in London, no matter if Kitajima wins a third gold, if a 30-year-old sneaks onto the podium for the first time, or a cancer survivor rises to the occasion, suffice to say the United States could not have sent two better advocates for competition and sportsmanship than Shanteau and Hansen.
In this particular event, on this particular stage, their age, wisdom, and experience will be needed.