By Rita Mingo
CALGARY – Brent Hayden wants to redefine what age means in swimming.
“I’ve come to realize I’m doing this for a lot of people out there who feel like they’ve gotten too old to accomplish their dreams,” explained the 36-year-old. “I just want to send a message that, no, it’s not too late. You can still do it.”
This past weekend at the Brookfield YMCA pool in south Calgary, Hayden’s message was loud and clear.
Taking part in his first competition in almost eight years – the Western TransMountain Festival hosted by the Cascade Swim Club – Hayden looked like he’d never been gone.
On the first day of the event, the native of Mission, B.C. – winner of a bronze medal in the 100-m freestyle at the 2012 Olympic Games – swam his signature race in a time of 49.91 in the morning, then bettered that to win the afternoon final with a 49.51.
“A lot of things came back, like getting my mind into the racing zone,” the former world champion said of jumping into competitive waters again. “The nerves definitely came back. But there was definitely a sense of unknown. I didn’t know what I was expecting. I always knew how to describe the pain of swimming the 100 but I think ultimately I kind of forgot what it actually feels like. So I wasn’t sure how much it was going to hurt.
“It was a really good test to see where I was,” Hayden continued. “When I started on this comeback I said my main focus was the 50 and then we’d see what I could do in the 100. The fact that I had went a 49 in the morning in my first swim back, with no real racing strategy to fall back on, then doubling that in the same day … I think my expectations of what I can achieve in the 100 freestyle at trials, hopefully beyond that in the summer, have increased. I’m not looking forward to just being a member of the relay; I’m looking to be the one swimming it individually again.”
On Day 2, he swam the 50-m free, once again lowering his morning clocking of 22.40, to 22.31. He had hoped for a little faster, but couldn’t complain.
All of this is in preparation for the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Swimming Trials, presented by Bell, to be held at the end of March in Toronto, an opportunity for him to make it to his fourth Games.
Hayden says he always wondered if it was possible, his return to elite swimming, and it was a sojourn in Lebanon with his wife last summer that started the ball rolling. Filming the curriculum for their online swim course, he was forced back into the pool and realized he liked it.
Then he did a clinic for a local club in Beirut, which included a quick 25 metres.
“The kids all wanted to see me swim fast so I got on the block and got my wife to film it,” he grinned. “I sent the video to Brett Hawke and I said what do you think of this. And he said, dude, you could still compete.”
Having discovered the gym and weights, his body was in the best shape ever and the back spasms he had been plagued with were no more.
“I wanted to still maintain the body of an Olympian,” he explained. “I didn’t want them to be shocked that I didn’t look like one anymore. A silly goal like that, maintain a physique, I was able to get my body stronger in ways that I hadn’t been able to before.”
Given his advanced age, his biggest challenge has been getting a training schedule that works for him.
“There’s a huge focus on the recovery aspect,” he pointed out. “It’s just the way my body is going to respond and it’s important to not feel like I’m getting left behind by these younger guys who can do two practices because my body is going to respond differently.”
His coach, Tom Johnson, was pleased with Hayden’s (second) debut.
“I think it’s just a credit to him in terms of his fitness and the work he’s put in in since September to get to this point,” said Johnson. “Whenever you’re coming back from being that far out of it, there’s always a question of whether or not the fitness levels are good enough to replicate the swim more than once a day. This is a really good sign that he’s able to improve from the morning to the night.
“He was fighting a cold and the flu last week, he had a sinus infection. He kept training but I don’t think he was feeling his best, so he may be a little underworked coming into the meet. So I’m pretty pleased with it.”
As teenaged swimmers flocked to have him autograph their T-shirts or pose for selfies at the Cascade meet, the distinction between competitors couldn’t be more stark.
“I looked at the ages of all the swimmers and I realized I’m the only swimmer born in the ‘80s – and early 80s. I grew up without the internet,” joked Hayden, who competes at a Pro Swim Series meet in Des Moines, Iowa, in two weeks. “It’s kind of cool to realize that not only can I compete but I can lead these guys at this age.
“I don’t feel old. My wife will probably tell you I haven’t aged in my mind at all. But I have to thank Anthony Ervin (the U.S. swimmer who won Olympic gold at age 35). I reached out to him for advice and he’s been supportive. When you see someone do what you thought was impossible all of a sudden everyone starts believing.
“I’m not exactly a trailblazer. I’m just making it less uncommon.”