Shelf Life of a Rivalry

by Casey Barrett

The “story” of Hansen vs. Kitajima… 

The king was there looking on. He was sitting smiling in the cheap seats, wearing a mesh hat with a sequined #1 emblazoned on the front. Rest assured, he was neither impressed nor threatened. Kosuke Kitajima was there, most likely, to support his training partner at USC. The one who finished second tonight – Eric Shanteau. The guy who won the race was a vanquished rival, a proud memory. All apologies for pissing on an admirable comeback and a nice London storyline, but the so-called rivalry between Brendan Hansen and Kosuke Kitajima ended long ago.

NBC does not want to hear this, and neither does Hansen. But it’s true.

Facts:

1. Kosuke Kitajima is the greatest breaststroker who’s ever lived. In a few weeks in London, he will likely complete swimming’s version of the Triple Double. That is, double breaststroke gold at three straight Olympics.

2. Brenden Hansen is one of the best breaststrokers ever. A former world record holder with four Olympic medals – a silver and bronze individually and a couple of medley relay golds. He’s in the conversation with the great ones, but he’s a big notch below his one-time nemesis.

3. From 2004 – 2007, these two had an incredible rivalry. Kitajima took him at the Games in Athens; Hansen claimed the world titles a year later in Montreal. Hansen got the best of him again in 2007, in the 100 breast at the Worlds in Melbourne.

4. In 2008, Kitajima ended this rivalry for good. He defended both breaststroke Olympic titles. Hansen finished 4th in the 100, and did not make the Team in the 200.

Which brings us to a curious statement made by Hansen in his post-race interview with NBC’s Andrea Kremer… When asked what Kitajima should think about this race in Omaha, Hansen replied rather defiantly: “Now he knows how hard it is to make the U.S. Olympic team.”

Ok… Fair enough. It’s beyond dispute that Team USA is the single hardest Olympic team to make on the planet, in any sport. Most of the time. Except, for example, in the case of the men’s breaststroke events, where it’s actually harder to make the Japanese team these days.

Take a look at the current world rankings. The top two ranked men in the world are both Japanese right now. Kitajima is back ranked number one, as is his custom in Olympic years. Who’s next? Ryo Tateishi, with a time of 59.60. Eight one-hundredths faster than Hansen’s winning time tonight, and half a second faster than the time Shanteau needed to grab the second spot on the US team. Put another way: If Hansen was Japanese, his comeback would not have resulted in a return to the Games.

This is not meant to criticize a rare successful comeback. Lord knows, there are plenty of unsuccessful comebacks to poke fun at these days… (21st place, Ed Moses? Really?) No, Hansen deserves a bow of respect for what he’s done. He’s back in the medal hunt after walking away and drying off completely for a few years. Plenty of retired egos think that’s easy. The bodies scattered by the side of the comeback trail this year prove that it’s anything but.

Still, in the rush to sell every developing Story of these coming Games, let’s be honest. By definition, a rivalry means a competition between perceived equals. There’s no equality here. Kitajima ended that discussion four years ago.

That is, until Brendan Hansen proves all the haters wrong – and wins that long deferred gold on July 29th in London.

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