By Mike Watkins//Correspondent | Thursday, April 27, 2017
The Olympics are just another meet, in the same length of pool as any other meet.
That’s what Hans Dersch tried telling himself before his events at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
The snag to that, of course, is that the outside pressure and the unfamiliarity of the event proved more difficult than he was expecting and impacted his performance.
He quickly realized that saying something isn’t the same as doing it.
“You would have an interview, and you'd say, ‘Yeah, I'm feeling just fine,’ and they’d say, ‘Come on, this is the Olympics!’ and then of course, all that extraneous expectation and emotion would come creeping in,” he said. “We had some real stars on that ‘92 team. Matt Biondi was incredibly good at being polite and managing the distractions, and then getting into his zone when it was time to swim.
“But it is a real challenge for the first-timer. I was not at all happy with my individual swim, and I was incredibly relieved to get a chance to redeem myself on the morning relay. I felt like an impostor for a long time when people would say I was a gold medalist, because it was a morning relay swim.”
A closer look at Dersch’s swimming resume proves he was far from an imposter.
In addition to his Olympic relay gold medal in 1992, he also won gold medals in the 100 breaststroke and 400 medley relay at the 1991 Pan American Games in Havana, Cuba.
Since those days – he retired in 1992 after winning a sprint meet in Great Britain in his only event as a professional – he’s been living his own version of the American dream.
He married “an amazingly intelligent, beautiful and energetic girl,” and spent many years as the primary caregiver for the couples’ two children, Hunter and Helena.
Now that they are grown up, he’s working at a company doing print media marketing.
“I finished in 1992 feeling I had pretty much done all I could to get faster,” said Dersch, an All-American at the University of Texas. “My relay split in Barcelona was right at the goal time I had set, so there was not much else to accomplish in the sport.”
“There weren't the opportunities for a pro career that exist today, but there was help that allowed me to stay in the sport those 2 years beyond graduation from the University of Texas.”
Dersch grew up in a rough area east of Atlanta and gravitated toward swimming to find a new group of friends and a way out.
Eventually, success in that water led to a college scholarship and escape from a place where he didn’t feel he belonged.
“It was hard work, but it was fun work at SwimAtlanta,” he said. “I always enjoyed being in the water, too. I'm not saying I didn't dread morning practices or that it never got to be a grind, but when I look back, that is certainly not what I remember.
“I think swimming picks you. Or maybe water picks you. I still love being in water, the way it feels rushing past you. You have to be comfortable for long periods in your own head. And you also have to like hurting yourself a little bit. We are all like that, I think.”
While he doesn’t swim much these days, Dersch stays close to the sport as an assistant coach with the National Group for Nitro Swimming in Austin, Texas.
Staying connected working with the athletes has reinforced his never-dying commitment to the sport that lifted him to heights in and out of the water he otherwise wouldn’t have achieved.
“I have been able to watch quite a few amazing swimmers come through the program and go on to make their mark. It feels good to think I helped a little,” he said. “Personally, I think I succeeded because I was not particularly athletic, and so I had to rely on technique just to keep up.”
As he looks back over his own career, he said he is most proud of belonging to the family of swimmers – counting his closest friends among those he made around the pool.
And while he said he knows he left the sport precisely when he was meant to – and left with no regrets – he does wish he would have been more open to stroke technique changes while working with Eddie Reese at the University of Texas.
“Eddie made a suggestion to me at one point that I was scared to implement, and now, looking back at how breaststroke has evolved, I can see that he was absolutely correct,” he said.
“Swimming brought so many amazing opportunities to see the world. I was in Seattle at the Goodwill Games, and (Indiana Coach) Ray Looze accidentally spilled Coke on a Communist. I got to travel to Cuba when it was very difficult to go there and actually see Fidel Castro. So many amazing experiences.”
Along his swimming journey, he picked up valuable lessons that have molded his life and continue to impact his decisions and actions.
He added that while he knows most athletes go through a hard time when they finish their careers, no matter where they finish, he thinks it’s helpful to remember that you’re still a swimmer even though you are no longer swimming.
That and always value the experiences athletics give you that you can carry with you throughout the rest of your life.
“Swimming taught me to set written goals, make active decisions rather than letting things just happen and how to work with a single-minded purpose,” he said. “The coaches I had along the way – Dave Elwanger, Chris Davis, Kris Kubik, Eddie Reese and others have had an immeasurable impact on the lives – including mine – of those fortunate enough to come through their programs.
“The sport gave me a life I would never have had on my own. It launched me out of my grim, small neighborhood into a world of smart, fun, driven people who are still doing great things with their lives. I have been incredibly lucky to be a part of it.”