By Jim Morris
VANCOUVER – After seven years away from the pool, Olympic bronze medallist Brent Hayden is back training with the goal of competing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Hayden retired from competitive swimming after reaching the podium in the 100-metre freestyle at the London 2012 Olympics. At the time the Vancouver resident, who trained at the High Performance Centre – Vancouver, was dealing with severe back problems and personal issues.
“I didn’t like the way I retired,” said Hayden, who turned 36 on Monday. “I retired because I hated the sport because of how things were playing out in my life. I realized I have a chance to fall in love with the sport again.”
Hayden hopes to qualify for Tokyo in the 50-m freestyle and possibly the 100-m freestyle. He could also bring depth to the relay teams. The 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Trials will be held March 30 to April 5 at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre.
“I think the 50-m is the most realistic,” said Hayden. “Historically, if you look at sprinters, 50-m freestylers have a longer life span. You can keep developing your power and aerobics a lot longer than your endurance that the 100-m requires.”
Hayden has been training with coach Tom Johnson at the HPC-Vancouver since early September.
John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s High Performance Director, welcomed Hayden’s return.
“When Brent contacted Swimming Canada about his return to competitive swimming we discussed his plans and ambitions, then we fully agreed and supported his return,” said Atkinson. “I am happy to say our High Performance Centre in Vancouver based at the University of British Columbia will be working with Brent to support his return. He is an accomplished athlete at the highest level, and we welcome him back to the sport.”
Johnson has been impressed with Hayden’s fitness level and determination.
“I see nothing really standing in his way of being able to do it,” said Johnson. “You can never underestimate him, because when he puts his mind to something, he is singularly focused and able to do it. He’s also a lot more mature. There’s a sense purpose about what he’s doing.”
After retiring Hayden rarely went to pool, except to conduct swim clinics. He remained in shape with regular weight training. This summer, Hayden spent three months in Lebanon visiting with the family of his wife Nadina Zarifeh. While there he began swimming at an outdoor pool.
“Things started feeling really good,” he said. “I started doing some sprints.
“Things that I thought would have been gone were still there. My technique felt amazing. Little quirks in my body that were always kind of annoying weren’t there anymore. I actually felt fresher.”
Hayden still holds Canadian freestyle records in the 50-m (21.73 seconds), 100-m (47.27 seconds) and 200-m (one minute, 46.40 seconds).
His bronze medal time of 47.80 seconds in London would have tied him for a silver medal at the Rio 2016 Games. It also would have given him a bronze at this year’s FINA World Championships.
Australian’s Kyle Chalmers, who was just 18 at the time, won the 100-m gold in Rio at 47.58 seconds. American Anthony Ervin won the 50-m freestyle in Rio in 21.40 seconds. At age 35, he is the oldest Olympic gold medal winner in swimming.
American Caeleb Dressel won the 50-m freestyle at the FINA World Championships in 21.04 seconds. The top Canadian was Yuri Kisil who finished 25th in 22.28. Dressel also won the 100-m in 46.96. Kisil was again the top Canadian, finishing 17th in 48.79.
During his career Hayden earned 22 medals at Olympics, world championships, Pan Pacific Championships and Commonwealth Games.
He won the 100-m freestyle gold at the 2007 World Championships, tying Italy’s Fillipo Magnini. That made him the first Canadian in 21 years to win a world championship gold. Hayden had high hopes for the Beijing 2008 Olympics but failed to qualify for the 100-m final. His medal in London was the first for a Canadian in the 100 metres. Hayden said returning to the pool has rekindled his love for swimming.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “Before, I never experience life without swimming. You just kind of fall into a routine. A lot of days it’s like walking into a job. It’s a chore.
“This time I’ve made the choice to come back. Every day I come here it’s a blessing. Even when I’m in the middle of a really hard set, and I feel like I just want to vomit, I can’t help but smile and be so thankful I’m here right now.”