By Jim Morris
When Brent Hayden announced in October of 2019 he was ending seven years of retirement to chase his dream of competing at a fourth Olympic Games, he knew there would probably be some challenges.
The Olympic bronze medallist had no idea those challenges would include a worldwide pandemic that would delay the Tokyo Games a year, close pools, cancel competitions and force him to train in Sasamat Lake near his home in New Westminster, B.C.
“I got a wetsuit,” said Hayden. “I’ll admit I have a phobia of swimming in lakes. I’m always afraid of what’s lurking in the deep. I had to get over that.”
Hayden cleared the final hurdle in his Olympic quest when he qualified for this month’s Tokyo Games by winning the 50-metre freestyle in 21.82 seconds at the Olympic Swimming Trials, presented by Bell.
Competing in his first trials in nine years, the 37-year-old became the oldest Canadian Olympic swimmer of all time. He will be Canada’s first four-time Olympic swimmer.
“It’s one of the greatest feelings ever,” he said. “I’ve never been this excited making an Olympic team. In the past, Olympic trials was always just a step to get to the Olympics.
“But, after being away from the sport for seven years and kind of working against the odds . . . to be able to come here and add an Olympics No. 4 is an amazing feeling.”
Hayden’s time was within nine hundredths of a second of his Canadian record of 21.73, set in 2009 when wearing one of the now-banned suits.
“If I swam that race with the same suit, that would have been a Canadian record,” said Hayden. “So, in a way, my body is actually performing better than it ever has before. The downside is the world has got a lot faster.”
American Anthony Ervin won the 50-m freestyle at the Rio 2016 Games in 21.40 seconds. At age 35, he is the oldest Olympic gold medal winner in swimming.
American Caeleb Dressel won the 50-m at the 2019 FINA World Championships in 21.04 seconds.
Tom Johnson, Hayden’s long-time coach at the High Performance Centre – Vancouver, said the veteran swimmer has put himself into the mix.
“He came back with the idea of trying to see how fast he could go,” said Johnson. “Almost two years later he’s swam probably the second or third best 50 free he’s ever done.
“Now the dream is alive. We will see what he can do. If he gets in the final, anything can happen.”
Hayden believes he can be even faster by the time the 50-m preliminaries begin on July 30.
“Without focusing on the results and focusing on the performance,” he said. “I’m so proud of what I’ve been able to do. When I retired at age 27, I felt old. I thought I’d already passed my peak, and everything was going to be downhill from there.
“Here I am at 37, throwing down performances that are, in retrospect, better than I’ve ever done at any point in my life.”
A sore back prevented Hayden from racing in the 100-m freestyle at the trials. He still will likely play a role in the men’s 4×100-m free relay.
Besides the 50-m, Hayden also still holds the Canadian record in the 100-m and 200-m freestyle.
Hayden abruptly retired after finishing third in the 100-m freestyle at the London 2012 Olympics. At the time he was dealing with severe back problems and personal issues.
He now finds himself in a better place both physically and personally.
“Things healed during the time off,” Hayden said. “I have relationships with everyone again. I’ve got an amazing amount of support behind me.
“Right now, I can’t think of anybody who doesn’t have my back. I keep my circle pretty close.”
Johnson said Hayden has matured and is better able to deal with the expectations placed on him.
“Brent doesn’t have a mean bone in his body,” said Johnson. “But he’s a very competitive guy below the surface.”
During his career Hayden has earned 22 medals at Olympics, world championships, Pan Pacific Championships and Commonwealth Games.
He won the 100-m freestyle gold at the 2007 FINA World Championships, tying Italy’s Filippo 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.
“Every single success that I’ve had came with challenges,” he said. “I lost my grandfather right before the world championships. Then going into London, I had a back spasm where I couldn’t even walk two weeks before and my rib was out of place the day of the final.
Those have taught me you don’t have to have a great day to be able to have a great performance.
“I just kind of use that experience through this whole training journey, that it doesn’t need to be perfect. It’s most important I’ve got a pump in my ribcage here.”
Hayden knows Tokyo will be a very different Games because of COVID-19. Family and friends won’t be able to attend, and there will be few if any fans in the stands.
“My goal is to go there and throw down a performance that I can be proud of, then I will be able to accept any results,” he said.
“That’s how I swam for the world championship gold, that how I swam for my Olympic bronze medal. The one time where I focused on the medal was in Beijing and I didn’t make the final. So, I try to make sure I stay focused in my lane and do whatever I can inside it.”