SIOUX CITY | The more salient peaks and valleys in Eric Hansen’s life are mostly scenic marvels that seem fitting as a backdrop to a very special and accomplished individual.
Lucky for us, frankly, that Hansen grew up a flatlander, right here in Sioux City, starring on East High swimming teams coached by his mother, Cleo, while also achieving some noteworthy feats as a high jumper in track and field and an end in football.
For me, at least, it’s a bit difficult to fathom that Eric -- in my eyes, still not far removed from his days as a state champion and a six-time All-American at Iowa State -- is now 47 years of age.
That’s still quite youthful, mind you, especially the way people in this family annihilate the aging process, but it’s old enough for me to understand why the 1984 East grad has called it quits as the head coach of one of America’s top college swimming programs.
Burned out, basically, after barely beginning his third season with the men’s and women’s teams at the University or Arizona, Hansen took a leave of absence on Oct. 20, hoping to recharge the batteries.
However, three months to the day later, on Jan. 20, he officially announced his resignation after leading the Wildcat men and women both to a pair of top-five finishes in his two NCAA Championships at the helm. Arizona’s men finished fourth and then third under Hansen’s direction while the women placed fifth both years -- the top overall parlay either year for any university in the country.
Still, the job simply got to be too much. And, there were some internal problems with the team, a matter still in the hands of the police, which made the daily grind seem just a little less worthwhile.
“It’s been my whole life and I’m just trying to carve out a little life instead of all work,’’ said Eric, who’ll be helping out in the athletic department through the end of April before officially exiting.
“This job was 24/7 since I’ve been here,’’ he said. “I’d wake up at 3 and run from 3:30 to 5. I’d drive to work and meet with my staff from 5:30 to 6, coach from 6 to 8, work in the office till 2, train from 2 to 4:30, go home and make recruiting calls till 8. It was do-able for awhile, but you realize at some point that you’re living your work and not living much.’’
This is someone who looks forward every year to the first Sunday in November, when he joins his brother, Nick, on a double-crossing of the Grand Canyon -- running from the south rim to the north rim and then back, or all of 48 miles in one of the world’s more breathtaking venues.
“That’s the one sacred weekend every year for me and my brother,’’ said Eric. “That’s something that I’ve always looked forward to, but it’s like a big deal when you’re gone from your job for a day and a half to do something for yourself.’’
Even some of the world travel he’s experience as a major player in American swimming wasn’t what most of us might have envisioned.
“You’re coaching the national team, which is a treat, but when you get back you realize that was your vacation,’’ he said. “You’re coaching three weeks in Spain and you get like three hours to go check out Barcelona. That’s not really a vacation.’’
Two trips to China in his career and one to Russia were, I suppose, much the same.
So, after taking his leave of absence, he spent time talking to some people who know about finding some balance in their lives. Most of them were named Hansen -- the family that pretty much all, Eric excluded, relocated to Fort Collins and suburban Loveland, Colo., and also nearby Estes Park.
That all happened about the time Nick stepped down after seven years as the men’s and women’s swimming coach at Wisconsin, turning that job over to Eric. And, Eric carried on in Madison for 12 more years, taking the program to new heights before this dream job at Arizona came up.
“I realized that this chapter in my life had kind of played out,’’ he said. “I feel like I got a lot done and now just want a little more balance. I want to have a weekend. I don’t remember the last weekend I’ve had. I’m still young enough to be able to own some of my life.’’
The plan is to join the family on the Front Range of the Rockies and probably go to work for Nick, who runs a real estate company with five offices in and around Fort Collins. “The Group,’’ as the business is called, also employs Nick’s wife, Debbie, a former Wisconsin swimmer.
Meanwhile, Cleo and Roger, who once made a pretty serious bid at playing for the Kansas City Chiefs, are now 72 and 73, rarely acting their ages, making almost daily hikes in the majestic Rocky Mountain National Park. And, the brothers’ lone sister, Kim, lives in Boulder with her husband, Dr. Joel Parker, an astronomer, and their son, Jake.
Eric, like all the others, is excited for the future of Nick’s very athletic son and daughter.
Alec, featured last summer in the Denver Post, is a 6-7, 245-pound freshman pitcher who spurned a professional contract to take his 96-mph fastball to the University of Oklahoma. Just 5-11 when he started high school, he matriculated from Loveland High last June after a spring season of baseball in which he struck out 69 batters in 29 innings.
Brooke, meanwhile, is a high school junior who posted prep All-America times in two events as a sophomore in last year’s large-school state swimming meet. She won a state title in the breaststroke and made even more news with a runner-up finish in the 200 individual medley won by Missy Franklin, who made national news by swimming with her high school team (Regis Jesuit of Aurora, Colo.) after garnering four gold medals the previous summer in the London Olympics.
“I’m looking forward to watching Alec pitch when Oklahoma comes to Phoenix later this month and then I’ll be able to go and work with my niece for the next year and a half before she goes to college to swim,’’ said Eric. “Those are things I’d never have had a chance to do.’’
In the small and underpublicized world of swimming, unfortunately, the decision to leave Arizona was here one day and gone the next. And, for the limited shelf life of the story, it was subject to so much innuendo and rumor, Eric wisely opted to let it evaporate like pool water.
“There’s so much crap on the internet, it’s like tabloid material,’’ he said with understandable annoyance. “It’s not remotely accurate.
“I’m really proud of what we accomplished while I was here,’’ he said, closing the books on a coaching career that yielded some highly impressive numbers.
At Wisconsin, for example, he had 56 student-athletes win all of 289 All-America citations, helping two of his athletes, Carly Piper and Adam Mania, reach the Olympics. I haven’t seen a complete breakdown on his two full seasons at Arizona, but the first year, less successful than the second, saw no less than 26 individuals garner All-American laurels.
None of that counts his years with the swim clubs in Phoenix and Tucson or numerous coaching stints with U.S. national teams in competitions around the globe, overseeing too many world and national records to remember. It also doesn’t count his six years (1987-92) as a swimmer on the U.S. national team, serving as team captain at the 1991 World University Games.
Like so much of his life -- like somehow finding time to high jump 6-9, still second best ever in Sioux City, with limited training -- a thorough accounting of Eric and the rest of the Hansen clan have never fit into one installment of this column.
Still, it’s always a joy for me just to give you a taste and to savor that small sliver of my job that has let me take notes.