by Amy Whitesall, Published May 02, 2012
YPSILANTI - For as long as he can remember, Eastern Michigan swimmer Jacob Hanson has been competing. Swimming, baseball, soccer, ping-pong with Dad. When he couldn't find a competition, Hanson manufactured one.
He recalls an assignment in 8th grade sewing class where the students had to guide a piece of paper through the machine, essentially sewing straight lines across the paper.
"I would go as fast as I could, just to beat everyone," he said. "I didn't sew straight, just fast."
In March Hanson put the two together, swimming straight and fast to finish seventh in the 200 backstroke at the NCAA championships in Seattle. He joins an elite handful of EMU swimmers to earn All-America honors. His semifinal time of 1:42.11 was a career best, breaking his own Mid-American Conference record.
"One of the biggest obstacles when people get on a national stage is suddenly you're in the same heat with the world record holder, the NCAA record holder, and there's a certain tendency to be (intimidated)," said EMU swim coach Peter Linn. "With Jake it's more like, 'It'd be cool to beat him.' It elicits his best performance when his best performance is needed, and it does that very reliably."
Most elite athletes have a competitive fire that sets them apart. Hanson, 21, was born with his.
He was born with a left hand that's about three-quarters the size of his right. It's otherwise a perfectly normal, functional hand, but in a sport ruled by propulsion and drag, the difference is significant enough that Hanson actually qualifies for a Paralympic classification.
He has no idea what it would be like to swim with matching, full-sized hands. But to make up for that missing surface area he works extra hard on his legs and is relentless about technique, making sure he's pulling as much water as possible with every stroke.
"All my life people have been telling me I wasn't going to amount to anything, that physically they didn't believe I have what it takes," Hanson said. "My hand is a lot of the driving (force) for me to prove people wrong."
Linn says it's never been an issue in Hanson's swimming. He had already mastered all four competitive strokes by the time he arrived on EMU's campus, making him an uncommonly versatile college swimmer. The hands? Well Linn just doesn't notice. Other qualities are much more important, from his work ethic to his sense of perspective at the high-intensity NCAA championship meet.
Hanson will get his next chance to rise to the occasion at the U.S. Olympic Trials June 25-July 2. Several EMU swimmers over the years have competed in the trials, but none have made a U.S Olympic team. Yet.
"I don't think any other athlete we've had has the range of ability (that he has), and I would also say that the competitive aspect sets him apart," Linn said. "He's really excited about the prospect of racing anyone. Even the best we've had here, there's always someone who would make them go, 'Yikes!
"He'd just think, 'Well, I might have to work harder."