His individual Olympic career now over after Sunday's 100-meter breaststroke final, American breaststroker Brendan Hansen never did win an Olympic gold medal. He never did stand atop the podium and hear the Star-Spangled Banner played just for him.
But we're guessing that the bronze medal he won Sunday -- the fifth of a career spanning three Games -- might glitter every bit as bright as a gold.
Why? Hansen finally got the better of Kosuke Kitajima, the Japanese breaststroker who won both the 100 and 200 breaststrokes in both Athens and Beijing. Despite being heavily favored entering the Games, Kitajima finished fifth in 59.79 seconds, .3 seconds behind Hansen's third-place time.
That a bronze medal might mean that much to Hansen speaks to how far Hansen's rivalry with Kitajima went beyond the latter's victories. Hansen has spoken plainly of being haunted by Kitajima's guttural scream of triumph after his first head-to-head victory in 2004, one heard by Hansen only one lane away. Kitajima hasn't done anything to cool tensions between the two, either, showing up in person at this year's U.S. Olympic Trials with a baseball cap adorned with an illustration of his four gold medals.
Maybe Hansen won't publicly acknowledge Sunday's head-to-head victory as a career highlight. After all, he has two gold medals, each won as part of the U.S.'s dominant medley relay teams, and could add a third in that same event later in the week.
But it's worth remembering that Hansen came out of retirement in part simply to finally exorcise the demons of his losses to Kitajima, and that this was his final opportunity t odo so, having failed to qualify for the 200. It's also worth remembering that no one expected Hansen to pull it off, with Kitajima the favorite and Hansen barely even qualifying for the final in eighth position.
So we're guessing that whatever Hansen says, after finally touching the wall ahead of an archrival he's been chasing for eight years, no American will treasure a bronze medal quite the way Hansen will treasure this one.