The inspiration to take on a new challenge can come from such unlikely places. For Jen Hansen, the idea of trying a "Spartan Race" — essentially a foot race over an obstacle course — came from her hairdresser.
"Just this harebrained idea," Hansen, the iconic former University of Kentucky gymnast, said Friday. "I was like 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever.' But then when I thought about it, I was like 'It does sound like fun.'"
That explains how Hansen came to spend Jan. 25 competing at California's Vail Lake in a 3-plus-mile event requiring such things as a barbed-wire crawl, a spear throw, a tire drag and various climbs and jumps over walls.
"It was so much fun, crazy, off-the-wall," Hansen said. "The people, they were just insane. And I was right there with them."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Later this month, Hansen, 41, will be back in Lexington. Some 19 years after she left UK as the most decorated gymnast in NCAA history, Kentucky will retire a "leotard" in Hansen's honor Feb. 20 at its meet against Arkansas.
"It's something, it's just not done, at least that I know of," Hansen said of the honor. "I'm excited, but I don't think I will really know how I will feel until I'm there, in the moment."
If you want to grasp the full magnitude of Hansen's UK legacy, consider this: The venerated Kentucky men's basketball program has won eight NCAA championships in its history. In her days competing for then-UK gymnastics coach Leah Little (1993-96), Hansen won eight NCAA championships (three all-around, five event) by herself.
"Really what Leah, Coach Little, did, she allowed her athletes to be able to have fun, allowed us to be students and be who we were," Hansen said. "I can't compare it to anyplace else because I didn't go anyplace else (for college), but I really appreciated that about Kentucky."
Hansen's story at UK always had a touch of fairy-tale about it. From the tiny town of Somerset, Wis., (population 2,668), Hansen fell in love with Central Kentucky horse country on a recruiting visit. Over four years at Kentucky, Hansen earned All-America honors 13 times. She was the first gymnast ever to win the NCAA all-around title three years in a row (1993, '94 and '95).
In 1994, she won the Honda Cup as the top women's amateur athlete in any sport. That same year, she was voted the Kentucky Sportsman of the Year by our state's sports media. In 1995, she was SEC Female Athlete of the Year.
Yet for all her success, what I always found compelling about Hansen in her UK days was the relentless energy with which she competed and the joy she seemed to derive from her abundant athleticism.
Some things, it turns out, do not change.
A return to competition
Today, Hansen lives in Simi Valley, Calif., and works in the entertainment industry. She has done some stunt work, primarily in television. She was a trainer on Season 14 of NBC's The Biggest Loser. For years, she has appeared in live shows at theme parks. Presently, she is appearing at Disneyland in Anaheim. Because of Disney confidentiality requirements, she cannot specify the role she plays. "The part I do is really physical. We're up in the air. I fight people. It's a lot of fun," she said. "Best thing is, it's a live show. I love performing live."
In the run-up to the 2012 London Olympics, Hansen was working as a stunt double on ABC Family Channel's gymnastics-themed drama Make It Or Break It. There, Bela Karoyli, the legendary gymnastics coach, saw her vault. "He said something like 'Why aren't you on our National Team?'" Hansen said. "At the time, I didn't think anything about it."
In her UK days, Hansen had sworn off the regimented lifestyle required of an Olympic aspirant. Karolyi's words, however, stayed in her mind. Luci Romberg, a fellow stuntwoman and friend, encouraged her to take Karoyli's remark seriously.
So at the advanced age of 38, in a sport dominated by teenagers, Hansen decided to go back into training to try to make Team USA for the 2012 Olympics.
Had she pulled it off, it would have been an incredible story. She didn't pull it off.
Still, Hansen said trying was a good experience. She marveled at the poise and generosity of spirit of some of her young rivals.
"I thought they might be thinking, 'Why is somebody your age even here?'" Hansen said. "But they didn't say that. They were just interested in how I did as a competitor. I just thought that was nice."
Hansen has stayed with gymnastics. She is now an instructor in USA Gymnastics' Xcel Program, which is designed as an entry point into the sport for those from non-traditional gymnastics backgrounds.
"I really love it," Hansen said. "It's three days a week, and I'm really enjoying trying to pass along the things I know. It's so much fun when you see a young girl master a new (skill) and the confidence they gain."
Between her performing, coaching and some work as a personal trainer, Hansen said she's enjoying her current life.
"Sometimes people look at living in California and are like 'Ooh, you're living the life," she said. "Well, there's ups and downs no matter where you are. Certainly, I've had them. But I'm in a good place right now and feel good about how things are going."
As for that "crazy" Spartan Race, anyone who remembers Hansen from her UK days will not be surprised to hear how she fared in her first one.
Among all women, she finished ninth.
Among women in her age group, Jen Hansen finished first.
"I want to try another one," says the most accomplished female athlete in University of Kentucky history, "and really try to win it overall."