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A test of endurance

PHOTOS BY SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

Ty Hansen rests his head in his hands over the grave of his twin brother Trey Hansen at the cemetery in Fremont. Ty, a track star for Fremont, graduated high school May 17.

For 16 years, Ty Hansen and his twin brother were never far apart. In 2013, one tragic night separated them. Running the streets of Fremont helped Ty heal. But inner strength paved his way to the medal stand.

By Dirk Chatelain // World-Herald staff writer

FREMONT, Neb. — Ty Hansen rose from his front-row seat, walked by the casket topped with a Tiger football helmet and turned toward the congregation. Not an empty seat in the church.

He looked down at four sheets of paper — the eulogy he’d written the night before — and took a deep sigh.

Ty Hansen, left, and his brother Trey.

The Hansen children: Ty, Hope and Trey.

The Hansen family, from left: Trey, Hope, Todd, Shannon and Ty. Dad Todd's secret for telling his twin sons apart? Ty's cowlick.

I don’t know where to start. I could stand up here forever and talk about this goofball.

Ty was 16 — two weeks removed from his sophomore year at Fremont High, three weeks removed from medaling at the 2013 state track meet. Just before his race started, he looked over and saw a familiar face behind the chain-link fence.

I remember when we were little, Trey and I would go into mom and dad’s room right before bedtime and we’d go snuggle with my mom and watch TV. I’d always lay on her left shoulder and Trey would always lay on her right. We’d kinda have a tug-of-war with her to, you know, snuggle with her the most.

He’d barely slept since Monday night, when he got the phone call. Now it was Saturday morning, June 8, and in five days, he’d dropped from 130 pounds to 115.

Trey really liked to check himself out. Every time I’d walk in the bathroom, there’s Trey with his shirt off, checking his muscles. He looks at me and he’d always say, ‘I’m bigger than you, I’m stronger than you.’ He called me Tiny.”

When me and Trey got into arguments, we threw all weapons at each other. One time, I threw a chair at him. One time, he threw a baseball at me. But ... we always hugged it out.

They shared T-shirts and birthday parties. They shared a car and a cellphone and a summer job. Sharing is the worst part of being a twin. It’s the best part, too.

He was the person who taught me how to dance. We all know Trey could dance. I remember everyone circling around him at dances and watching him do the “Dougie” and “Cat Daddy.” And as we were going home, he’d be like, ‘Ty, that is how you get girls.’ ”

For seven minutes, 10 seconds, he stood at the pulpit and told stories. He said that God had a plan, and “even though I hate God’s plan right now — and it sucks — I still love and trust in the Lord.”

He didn’t comprehend what lay ahead. Who was Ty going to mock for picking a new favorite NFL team every season? With whom was he going to write rap lyrics for a math project? Who was going to wear the penguin costume to pep rallies? For the next two years, Ty wondered, how much better would I be if Trey were here?

Then came a sunny afternoon in Omaha, two weeks before graduation, a triumph that reinforced he was going to be OK.

I know he’s listening to this right now. I just want him to know that mom, dad and Hope love you. I love you. And we all love you.

Seven minutes, 10 seconds. He didn’t stumble. His voice didn’t crack. And when the words on the paper ran out, he ad-libbed the last line.

Rest easy, buddy.

* * *

Todd Hansen watched the ultrasound wand move over his wife’s belly. The technician studied the screen. And studied. And studied.

Did she know what she was doing?

“Guess what, kids,” she said. “Double trouble.”

It was May 1996, the last day of the school year. They had planned to take a California vacation. They had planned to buy patio furniture. By the time they got home, Todd nixed both.

“I still don’t have patio furniture,” said Shannon, who continues to teach special education at Fremont High.

Todd was 6-foot-4, a former defensive end at Kearney State College. Shannon was 5-2, the daughter of a football coach.

No wonder they wanted boys. Todd always loved the name Trey, but it took a while to lock in on Ty. The babies were due New Year’s Eve. They arrived Thanksgiving night.

For the next 16 years, they were synonymous. Inseparable. And consciously or subconsciously in competition.

First out of the womb? Ty.

First tooth? Trey.

First to sleep through the night? Trey.

First step? Ty.

First to patty-cake? Ty.

By preschool, the twins were regulars at Fremont High games. They drew laughs from the bleachers when they grooved to the pep band. At home, they danced to Michael Jackson at the end of “Free Willy”: “Will You Be There.”

Studies warned Todd and Shannon of co-dependence. The twins needed to have their own identities.

But the Hansens wanted them to have the same experiences, too. So Ty and Trey were in the same classrooms. On the same teams. They were fraternal twins, but people confused them a lot. Dad’s secret was Ty’s cowlick.

He coached them in Jaycees football. The Lou’s Sporting Goods Steelers! Todd could scowl like Bill Cowher and he was hardest on his boys. In sixth grade, after three undefeated seasons, the Steelers fumbled six times against the Chiefs.

Streak broken.

As they grew up, Trey acted more like a football player. He was a couple of inches taller. More aggressive, too. Ty was quieter. When friends came over on a weekend, Trey made the plans.

The twins bought mascot costumes and became Friday night celebrities, leading the cheers at Fremont basketball games and dancing at pep rallies. Trey, in the center, was a yellow-beaked penguin; Ty, at upper right, was a lion.

“OK, that’s what I’m doing, too,” Ty said.

Their best idea: the Furry Friends. They bought mascot costumes and became Friday night celebrities, leading the cheers for Fremont High basketball, dancing at pep rallies, going around on weekends and pranking strangers.

Ty was a lion, Trey a penguin. Their buddies followed suit.

It got so big that nearby Arlington requested them for a basketball game. A couple of parents expressed concern about the high jinks.

Shannon Hansen’s response: “If that’s the worst thing our boys are gonna do, I can live with it.”

* * *

Sean McMahon has coached Fremont High distance runners for 20 years. He built the Tigers into one of the state’s best programs.

Ty and Trey grew up in his neighborhood. The coach has an eye for talent, but he didn’t see them as distance runners.

Then he saw Ty run an 800 meters in middle school. He saw a kid light on his feet. McMahon wrote him a letter inviting him to run cross country.

Ty’s reaction: “This guy’s crazy. I ain’t doing this.”

He’d already picked up his pads for football camp when he noticed it was the first day of cross country, too.

“I thought, I’m gonna go and try it out. Just for one day. If I don’t like it, I’ll come back to football.”

His first meet, dad and Trey brought a football to play catch.

Ty labored over the hills of Pioneers Park. When he finished he was white as a ghost. This is harder than football, Dad. But Todd saw the potential, too. He encouraged Ty to stick it out.

For two years, Ty ran 40 to 50 miles a week while Trey played football. They cultivated their own friendships. At home, they never drifted, making the basement their own little two-bedroom apartment.

Ty settles into the blocks, with Trey right behind him. Ty ran cross country while Trey played football, but they’d reunite for track. Trey taught Ty how to use the blocks.

Sometimes they bickered over clothes. “You guys realize you wear the same boxers,” mom said. “And you’re fighting over a shirt?”

They both had car keys but finished practice at different times. The first twin didn’t always wait to give the second a ride home. “Why’d you leave me, you jerk?”

They reunited for track season. Ty keeps those memories close.

Like sophomore year, when he ran the third leg of the 4x800 against the state’s best two-miler. Ty caught him on the first lap and passed him on the second. Trey went crazy on the sideline. Later in the meet, Trey ran up to McMahon: “Coach, Coach! We are in his head! He keeps seeing me and thinking that I’m Ty.” Their rival was seeing two Hansens.

Trey taught Ty to use the blocks in the 400 meters. Trey was Ty’s first hug after qualifying for state in the mile. And before the gun went off at the 2013 state meet, Trey offered the last words of encouragement: “You got this!”

When Ty earned two medals at Burke Stadium — a fifth and a third — Trey tweeted: “Ty STARTED FROM THE BOTTOM and now look where he is.”

* * *

June 3, 2013, was a Monday, the first day of cross country conditioning. Ty ran that morning, then went to work at the pool, where he and Trey were lifeguards.

That afternoon, Trey tweeted: “LeBron wants to be in Space Jam 2, LOL you can’t make another Space Jam.”

They came home, ate supper and hosted their friends. Kids always hung out in the Hansen basement. They called themselves “The Bros.”

They were academic achievers, active in sports and music and Boy Scouts. Nobody had higher goals than Trey, who wanted to attend the U.S. Military Academy and be a doctor.

Now they were all 16, meeting at the Hansens’ before cruising Fremont. For the past month, their favorite transportation was Jackson Blick’s ’66 Ford Mustang, a birthday gift from his grandpa.

On June 3, Ty walked out of the house with four guys: Trey, Jackson, Tyler Walling and Jake Burnside. This time he didn’t go with them. He got into his Camry. He and his girlfriend were headed to a late movie: “Now You See Me.”

Ty headed for the theater. His four bros turned onto Old Highway 8 southeast of Fremont, driving past a yellow, diamond-shaped sign: “No Outlet.” The road used to go for miles, but when the Highway 30 bypass was built, Old Highway 8 became a dead-end road. A curvy, shoulderless two-lane.

Just before 10 p.m., Old Highway 8 became a racetrack. Blick’s Mustang ran against a classmate’s Camaro. The Camaro was out in front when the Mustang, traveling about 65 mph, veered off the road into the right ditch and hit a culvert beneath a grass driveway. The car vaulted, came down on its top and rolled.

Fremont High reels after a drive with friends ends in 3 deaths

Following the accident, three crosses mark the site of the crash on Old Highway 8 in memory of Tyler Walling, Jackson Blick and Trey Hansen. Read the full story

Trey, sitting in the back seat, was ejected.

Ty got a phone call before the movie. It was dad. Trey had been in an accident. Go home! Ty didn’t think much of it. Probably a fender-bender.

When he got home, his grandma and sister were there. Mom and dad didn’t answer his call. That was odd, too. He drove to the hospital where, 17 years earlier, his parents had their ultrasound.

People were crying in the ER. Tyler’s and Jackson’s families were in the chapel. Trey was unconscious in the trauma center, surrounded by nurses. He had lost a shoe. His shirt was torn up. “It was actually one of my shirts,” Ty said. A blue Nebraska T-shirt with white letters.

A mask helped Trey to breathe. His brain was swollen. Ty held his hand. You’re gonna get through this, Baby Trey.

“I called him Baby Trey.”

Soon a helicopter arrived to transport Trey to Creighton University Medical Center. On West Dodge Road, Ty stared off into the dark. Trey was getting a CT scan when Ty arrived at Creighton. He checked his Twitter feed.

Friends were posting “RIP” messages for Jackson Blick and Tyler Walling.

Ty fainted.

* * *

He woke up and sipped a Coke. I’m fine. I’m fine.

When he finally saw his brother, Trey looked worse than he did in Fremont. Ty could see only his eyes, nose and mouth. Bandages covered Trey’s neck.

All Ty could do was wait and walk laps. Over and over, Ty said, “He’s gonna be OK.”

Long after midnight, he walked into the chapel, where his parents were talking to a neurosurgeon. There’s too much swelling in the brain, he said. There’s nothing we can do.

Ty stormed out, dropped to his knees and bawled. When the chaplain told him Trey was going to a better place, Ty snapped. You’re giving up!

He slept for about three hours that night. The next morning, he took Trey’s football helmet, gloves and blankies to the hospital. “We had blankies when we were little.”

Trey was an organ donor, but doctors couldn’t operate for another day.

That second night was the hardest. Ty woke up in a hotel room and heard dad crying in the corner. “I didn’t say anything. They thought I was asleep. I’ve never seen him like that. He just cried and cried.”

The last morning, the Hansens walked to the hospital before dawn. Ty walked into Trey’s room, climbed into his bed and snuggled him.

He fell asleep.

* * *

The night of the funeral, Ty visited Coach McMahon’s house. He’d made it through the music and the eulogy and the slideshow — he was side by side with Trey in almost every photo.

Now a new week was starting and he wasn’t quite sure what to do.

Coach reminded him about the annual cross country trip to Colorado. It was a week away. There were plenty of reasons not to go. But Ty’s chaplain encouraged him. It’d be good for you.

For one week, he and his teammates roughed it in the mountains, staying in a cabin, training every day, doing chores at night. Ty wasn’t crazy about laundry, but he loved the running.

Left: Ty Hansen looks at medals won by his brother Trey Hansen in Trey's bedroom. Ty sleeps in his brother's bed every night. Bottom right: A pensive Ty Hansen drives through his hometown.

He came home to a quiet basement. He was used to walking down the hallway, looking into Trey’s room and seeing his brother on the bed, listening to music.

Ty saw the vintage college T-shirts in the closet, the Rex Burkhead picture on the wall, the Pinewood Derby car and track medals on the shelf, the North Carolina logo above Trey’s bed — Ty was a Duke fan.

He made a promise. He wouldn’t move anything. He’d keep his room across the hall. But from now on, this is where he sleeps.

That first year, sleeping was hard. Every landmark on the calendar was another gut punch. The first Fourth of July. The first football game. The first birthday.

He and Trey were in JV choir as sophomores. The first day as a junior, Ty showed up for choir but never returned. He changed his class schedule. Another day, he walked out of school entirely.

He met regularly with a counselor, but some days he preferred venting to Coach McMahon.

He medaled at state cross country junior year. Grabbed two more medals in track. But was he reaching his potential? Without Trey, he wasn’t sure he could.

Over and over, mom told him she thanked God that “you were not in that car.” Nine times out of 10, Ty would’ve been.

Ty is a blessing to his parents, more treasured than ever. But he’s also a constant reminder of what they lost. Last May, Shannon looked across the living room and shuddered. Ty had buzzed his hair. She swore it was Trey.

Maybe that’s why he doesn’t cut it short anymore, she said.

Sometimes people call him Trey by mistake. He’s OK with that. What bothers him are half-hearted condolences. Casual efforts to honor his brother. When he saw an “RIP Trey,” Ty snapped a hockey stick over his knee.

There’s one consistent outlet for his grief: the streets of Fremont.

He burns through two pairs of running shoes every season. In training, he finds freedom and solitude. It drains his distress.

Running is so mental, he says. Sure there are fundamentals. Breathing. Arm swing. Heel return. But maybe the biggest adjustment is the pain. It doesn’t come with a crashing hit or a sudden jolt, like football. It’s constant. Success is learning to live with it.

Ty doesn’t look like most distance runners. They’re tall and take long strides. He’s 5-foot-9.

But his intensity intimidates younger teammates. His guts make a difference at the finish line. This year, he’s raised his commitment.

“If you’re gonna beat me,” Ty says, echoing the Steve Prefontaine quote on his wall, “you’re gonna have to bleed to do it.”

* * *

“On the hop!” Todd yelled, his own little tradition.

Ty leaned forward in lane 6 and waited for the gun.

Pop.

Fremont’s distance-running tradition is so rich that kids grow up prioritizing school records above state medals.

The crown jewel at Fremont — the oldest record — is the 800 meters, set in 1970.

For McMahon’s two decades of coaching, he had tired of answering questions about the mark. You got anybody who can break 1:53.8?

When Ty and his dad set a goal sophomore year to break the 800 record, McMahon didn’t think much of it. They weren’t the first to chase it.

But leading up to the Omaha North Invite on April 30, McMahon checked the forecast and noticed sunshine and a light breeze. Hmmm. Then he noticed Ty’s explosiveness at practice.

Let’s go for it.

Ty Hansen, second from right, runs two miles last week with his Fremont track teammates and, at right, Sean McMahon, the school’s distance running coach. McMahon, who has an eye for talent, spotted potential when Ty was in middle school.

They talked strategy. Ty isn’t a 48-second 400 runner. He can’t go out fast and stagger to the finish line. He had to dominate the middle. Get to 600 meters in 1:22 and he had a chance.

McMahon and a pack of Fremont runners hustled from the starting line to give Ty his first 200-meter split: 27 seconds.

The 800 field featured most of the state’s best runners, so McMahon hoped somebody would start fast and set the pace. Give Ty something to chase. He should’ve known. Ty grabbed the lead early and dared the competition to keep up.

“You could tell he was feeling it,” McMahon said.

When he started the final lap, Ty already had a big lead. But the middle of the race is where these pursuits often fail. The concern, McMahon said, was that “he’s gonna go to sleep, slip into his comfort zone.” He didn’t.

McMahon told him he needed to cross 600 meters at 1:22. As Ty ran by, someone shouted 1:21.

He came around the final turn, started the final 100 and looked at the clock beyond the finish line — “That’s a bad habit,” he said.

He crossed the line, raised his arms, twirled around and dropped to his knees. He ad-libbed from there.

“Wooooooo!”

When he heard the time — 1:52.7 — he almost gasped. “That’s fast.”

More than a second better than the school record. Seventh all-time in the state of Nebraska. His head was throbbing when he sat down and unlaced his spikes.

He crossed the track, climbing a hill where his parents stood. He hugged his mom, panting against her.

“I’m proud of you.”

Video: Ty Hansen's record-setting run (April 30)

Ty cooled down and opened a bag of Scooby snacks. The official starter handed him the gun shell that opened the race. Ty controlled his emotions until he walked into the quiet Fremont tent. That’s where it hit him.

For 16 years, six months and six days, he raced Trey to childhood milestones.

First to ride a bike? Ty.

First principal’s office visit? Ty.

First to drive? Trey.

First kiss? Trey.

The past two years, Ty wondered where he’d be if Trey were here pushing him. In 1:52.7, he found an answer. He could do it alone.

* * *

The Toyota Camry pulled off Somers Avenue and turned slowly toward the cemetery’s north end, where a white bench sits in the shade of a young maple tree.

Ty stopped the car and stepped into the grass, where he saw something new. Balloons.

It’s been a busy few weeks. Prom. The record race at Omaha North. The last pep rally where the Furry Friends reunited and danced — Ty wore Trey’s penguin suit. Then graduation.

At the ceremony, Ty won the boys citizenship award. He sat eighth row on the aisle, straightening his gold sash, a little bored.

His class of 282 students received their diplomas alphabetically. When Ty crossed the stage, he didn’t crack a smile — Trey would’ve been first.

Three days later, Ty walked toward two graduation balloons dancing in the breeze. “My mom didn’t tell me.”

Ty tends to his brother's grave marker at the Fremont cemetery, brushing freshly mown grass from the stone.

Sometimes he stops here during a run. Sometimes he drives here at night when he’s bored.

Birds sing. Bunnies run. Train whistles bawl in the distance.

“It’s really peaceful.”

He knelt over the grave and wiped grass clippings from the stone. He looked at the stuffed penguin and the organ donor seal. He looked at the words “Trey Isaac Hansen.”

He still wonders what happened that night. Did Trey say anything in the car? Did he try to make them stop?

“I would do anything, except kill someone or hurt someone, to bring them back,” Ty said. “I would go through the worst pain you could imagine.”

This is the hard part, balancing past and future. Too much reflection slows him down. He’s 18 years old. It’s May of his senior year.

“I can’t just be sad all the time. I gotta still live life.”

It’s funny, these final two years of high school, he’s become more like his brother. Trey was the popular one, Ty the wallflower.

“I can’t just be sad all the time. I gotta still live life.”
— Ty Hansen

But starting with the funeral, suddenly Ty was the center of attention. The surviving twin. Friends and strangers brought up his brother all the time. Trey became, in a weird way, a conversation piece.

Ty had a choice: avoid those conversations or embrace them. Engage. Share.

“I had to open up.”

At homecoming, classmates circled Ty and watched the king perform Trey’s dance, the Dougie. During the 1600 meters at districts, Ty turned to the bleachers after one lap and smiled at a college girl he knew.

“I like older women.”

There was one high school milestone left — the state track meet — and Ty wanted to put on a show for a big crowd. He wanted to bring a gold medal back to this cemetery.

Before he turned back to the car, he followed his own little tradition. He dropped his hands into the grass, leaned down and pressed his lips to the stone.

* * *

He fell asleep early Friday night. That doesn’t happen a lot. At 6:30 a.m., his dad walked into Trey’s old room and woke him. Ty came upstairs and packed his bag — he always waits till the last minute.

His college decision was supposed to happen on New Year’s. Then he moved his deadline to Feb. 1, then March 1, then April 1. He considered UNL and UNK, Nebraska Wesleyan and South Dakota. Finally, he made up his mind.

He wasn’t ready to leave home. He’s going to Midland.

“My parents are soooooo pumped.”

He climbed into the back of mom and dad’s Suburban, lay down and took West Dodge Road till he saw Burke Stadium, home of the state meet.

“Just go do what you do,” Shannon said.

The 800 meters was the first race of the day. He waited through eight girls races. Then Class D, C and B boys. Then he walked out to the track, jogging back and forth, kicking his blue Nikes, bouncing up and down. Clouds were spitting a soft rain. He squinted.

Runners to your marks. He cleaned a chunk of grass off his starting line in lane 4. He waited for the gun.

Pop.

Ty’s strategy was no secret: Go get it. Grab the lead. Dominate the first 100 meters. Coast down the backstretch.

“Then break everyone.”

His 400-meter split was even better than at Omaha North: 52.9. He had a big lead.

He checked the big screen and saw a Millard South runner trailing him. Getting a little closer. They passed the Fremont fan section at 600 meters and heard the roars.

Mom and dad. Grandma and little sister Hope. All of his dad’s old football buddies. And his best friend, the classmate who postponed a vacation to Mexico, the only survivor from the crash, Jake Burnside.

Around the last curve, his pursuer got a little closer. Ty waited for the final 100 meters. Then he took off.

There’s an image that stuck with him the past two years. An image he still thinks about before races. Spring 2013. Their last track season together.

Ty and Trey left home for a Sunday workout. It wasn’t quite fair. Trey was no distance runner, so he rode a bike. As they reached a busy intersection, Ty got an idea.

After we cross Bell Street, he said, take your bike and ride ahead of me. Go hard. See if I can catch you.

So Trey crossed the street and started pedaling faster and faster and pretty soon Ty was chasing him. They did this for almost a mile.

Trey could’ve pulled away. Gone so fast that Ty couldn’t even see him. He didn’t. He stayed just close enough to give his twin brother a target. In the end, Ty caught him.

Saturday morning at Burke Stadium, there was barely an empty seat in the house when Ty hit the final straightaway and pulled away, putting on a show, breaking his own school record by one-tenth of a second and grabbing his all-class gold.

He climbed the steps toward the Fremont cheering section and listened to the applause. He buried his head into his dad’s chest and listened to the words. “I love you.”

Four hours later, Ty came back for a race he didn’t expect to win: the 1600 meters. He fell behind. He never had control. But in the final 20 meters, shoulder to shoulder with a Creighton Prep rival, Ty made one last kick.

When he crossed the finish line, he pointed to the clouds.

He was first again. But never alone.

Contact the writer:

402-649-1461, dirk.chatelain@owh.com, twitter.com/dirkchatelain


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