Thursday, February 22, 2018
Human Interest

She's not at the Olympics — yet — but this 6-year-old swimmer is learning what excellence takes (w/video)

ST. PETERSBURG — She's sitting on the pool deck, chin between her knees, gazing at her feet. She peeks at the swim heats written on her arm in black Sharpie. Time for her favorite, the butterfly.

Her father is volunteer head timer. He tries to stand there nonchalantly amid the throng of onlookers, but he is tense. Forty years ago, this was him. Now it's her.

Brinkleigh Bo Hansen, 6, dives into the North Shore Pool just as the whistle goes off, but she hits the water belly first, and there goes her momentum.

Her father sees that she is behind. He yells: "Go Bo Bo! Go Bo Bo!"

A week ago, Brinkleigh broke three longstanding swimming records in the "6 and under" age group at North Shore Pool, including a 1985 backstroke record that belonged to her mother's friend.

On this bright, sunny day in late July, she's the youngest kid in this "8 and under" butterfly race and now most of them are ahead of her.

• • •

Brinkleigh grew up at this pool. Her parents met here in a master's swim class. Both were college Division 1 swimmers, Rebecca Hansen, 37, for the University of Connecticut, Jay Hansen, 46, for Western Kentucky University.

Both still hold youth swimming records in their respective home counties.

Her mother broke an "8 and under" record in Belchertown, Mass. She went on to become supervisor of this St. Petersburg pool.

Her father won five swimming records as a high schooler in Michigan. He hoped to play football or swim for the University of Michigan Wolverines, but didn't. He went on to become a stock trader for Raymond James.

When Brinkleigh was born, the second of their four children, he chose the middle name "Bo" out of respect for Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler.

He watched her learn to swim, then learn to compete. He watched her do one length of the butterfly in 35 seconds, then 25, then 22.

In Florida during the past year, only one other 6-year-old posted a faster time than Brinkleigh in the 25-meter butterfly and that was by a quarter of a second, according to, a Website that tracks swimmers across the country.

Brinkleigh's father tells her she's got a gift, but she needs to work hard if she wants to keep winning and breaking records.

"We preach that there's no substitute for hard work, no cutting corners," he says. "Everything makes a difference."

Hard work brings rewards. So when Brinkleigh broke the three North Shore Pool records for freestyle, backstroke and butterfly, she got a Fitbit, went for a pedicure with her dad and got her ears pierced with her mom.

Rebecca Hansen loves that her daughter enjoys something she and her husband are so passionate about. But she often reminds him that Brinkleigh is only 6.

"Don't crush her spirit," she says.

• • •

Brinkleigh is a happy girl with sandy hair, dark wide eyes and a toothy smile. She is generous to a fault, often giving away her mother's office supplies to other kids.

Her Rs still sound like Ws, so that their German shepherd, Rumor, sounds like Wrooma. She still wants to put a kitty cat first on her list for Christmas to increase the chances Santa will bring it to her.

Every morning, her dad takes her to Lakeview Fundamental Elementary. Each afternoon, all four kids go to competitive swim practice.

"I really like practicing and racing," Brinkleigh says, "because it's something me and my parents do."

Every morning, she gets up at 5:30 a.m. just after her mother leaves for work. Her father helps her and her three siblings, Karrington, 7, Sawyer, 5, and Sutton, 3, get ready for school.

Brinkleigh says she does four sets of five sit-ups on a hiking bench because "it gives you ab stwength."

She adds: "It gets me loosened up but sometimes it hurts."

On the wall of Brinkleigh's bubble gum pink room is a huge whiteboard on which her dad has written:

"Who's got it better than us? Nobody!!!" and "Go Blue," a reference to his University of Michigan Wolverines.

Next to it is large flag bearing her father's high school image, celebrating his induction in 2013 into the Mason County Hall of Fame in Michigan.

Brinkleigh asked to hang it in her room.

• • •

It's the halfway mark of the butterfly race, and Brinkleigh is more than a body length behind an 8-year-old girl with a yellow cap who is in first place.

She knows that girl is the one to beat. She knows she has to compensate for the fact that she is much smaller than the other girls. She speeds up her arms, whirling through the butterfly stroke almost twice while the 8-year-old gets through one.

It's not the right way to win since she should be slowing down and digging deeper. But right now, it is doing the job. She passes one girl, then another.

Right at the end, it's just Brinkleigh and Yellow Cap.

Twenty seconds have passed since she leaped in the water. She touches the wall with both hands — at 21 — and wins.

As she comes out of the pool, she searches for her dad's thumbs up.

She sees it, grins and runs off to build a fort.

Contact Leonora LaPeter Anton at 727-893-8640 or [email protected]

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