By John Knebels
Special to The CS&T
When Brendan Hansen was about 10 years old, he won yet another swimming race.
A woman came up to Hansen’s mom and emphatically suggested that she report her son’s times.
“I really had no idea of what she was talking about,” said Miriam Hansen. “I was like, ‘Why?’ I had no idea they were considered that good. I didn’t even know who I was supposed to report the times to.”
That was 17 years ago, and since that eye-opening moment when a mother began realizing that her son might have a truly significant gift as a standout athlete, Brendan Hansen – the same Brendan Hansen who graduated from St. Denis School in Havertown – has become one of the world’s fastest swimmers.
At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China this weekend, Hansen became part of Olympic lore. He became a trivia question for the ages.
Hansen raced the second leg of the 400-meter medley relay that eventually cemented Michael Phelps as the first Olympian in history to win eight gold medals in the same venue, eclipsing Mark Spitz’s seven gold medals back in 1972.
Reached at her sister’s home at the Jersey shore, Miriam Hansen almost sounded as tired as her son probably is.
“Brendan has been in pressure situations, but none like this,” she said. “All of the guys had so much riding on that race. Fair or not fair, any little thing that could go wrong would have been considered a major event, so they were all under a microscope more than at any other time.
“That said, I think Brendan handled the pressure just fine. But as a parent….”
Miriam Hansen admitted that because Phelps was trying to make history, capturing the gold medal was more a relief than euphoria because “nobody wanted to be the one who blew it. They were careful not to do anything wrong. That’s a tough way to do a race,” she said.
Though she had not spoken with Brendan at that point, she said her son Sean told her that Brendan reiterated that, though obviously pleased with winning his second gold medal (he also won gold in the medley relay at the 2004 Olympics), he felt very relieved more than anything.
“It was one of the top sporting events in history,” she said. “The media was relentless. I’m glad it’s over. I’m sure they are all glad it’s over.”
An Archbishop Carroll graduate of 1973, Miriam Hansen lauded St. Denis School for her own education and those of her three children – Brendan, Sean and Megan.
“It’s a great school,” she said. “I loved working there. In the schoolyard, in the cafeteria, as a homeroom mom … I have really nice memories. And Brendan loved it there, too. They were really good teachers. To this day, Brendan will say things like, ‘Good old St. Denis. Thank God they taught me basic, fundamental stuff that I still rely on.'”
Another Hansen fan who was literally at the edge of her seat was Helen Savini, Brendan’s maternal grandmother. Also St. Denis parishioners, both Helen (a product of St. Rose of Lima grade school and West Catholic High, Class of 1949) and her husband John – parents of 10 children – did a lot of nail biting while watching their grandson etch his name in the record books.
Savini said she relaxed “just a little” when the meet began without a false start, but throughout the entire 3 minutes, 29.34 seconds – a world record time – she and her husband were “both breathing very deep.”
“Brendan is so dedicated to his sport and always has been,” said Savini. “What I love most about Brendan is that he is just an outstanding young man. I know I’m very prejudiced when I say that, but I love that when we have family get-togethers, nobody mentions swimming. He’s just another grandchild. All of them have special talents, and all of them have special accomplishments.”
Among the teachers who taught Hansen at St. Denis and still remain are Rita Block, Virginia Fleming and Ralph Purri.
Third-grade teacher Diane Brown, whose daughter Jen accompanied Hansen to her junior prom, described Hansen as a “genuinely great guy.”
Block, a third-grade teacher for 28 years at St. Denis, wholeheartedly agrees.
“He was a nice boy and a wonderful student,” said Block. “My most vivid memory of Brendan was when we had hobby day in January and he brought in a swimming display that was amazing.
“Pictures, trophies, medals, even swim trunks. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this kid is really accomplished at this sport.'”
Following his Olympic performance in 2004, Block was talking with Helen Savini and kiddingly said it would be great if her former student could one day address her class. Savini laughed and said she might be able to arrange that.
Sure enough, Hansen paid a visit to Block’s class and spoke to the awe-struck students.
“It was gracious of him to come and he was a very inspiring speaker,” said Block. “He wasn’t egotistical at all, just a really kind young man. He is as nice today as he was back in third grade.”
Hard to beat that.
John Knebels can be reached at email@example.com.