VANCOUVER – After an incredible comeback that amazed the swimming world, inspired his Olympic teammates, and thrilled Canadians from coast to coast, Brent Hayden is retiring – again.
The 2012 Olympic medallist and 2007 world champion overcame a seven-year layoff, the global COVID-19 pandemic and the rigours of aging to exceed expectations in his fourth Olympic Games. Despite being more than double the age of some of his teammates and competitors, Hayden helped Canada to a fourth-place finish in the men’s 4×100-m freestyle relay last summer in Tokyo. The oldest Olympic swimmer in Canadian history at age 37, Hayden helped the team set a Canadian record of 3:10.82. His leadoff leg of 47.99 made him the oldest to ever swim under 48 seconds. He also finished ninth in the men’s 50-m freestyle, the top result among Canadian men.
“When I came out of retirement in October 2019, I had the goal of trying to qualify for my fourth Olympic Games in less than one year. What I ended up getting, even with all the challenges through COVID, were two and a half amazing years back in the sport I loved so much,” Hayden said.
Hayden was recently recognized as Swimming Canada’s Male Swimmer of the Year for the fourth time, 14 years after winning the 2007 honour. While there’s no question his accomplishments in the pool were impressive, he placed an even greater value on reclaiming his love for the sport after battling depression and injury.
“Not many people get a second chance, so I count myself incredibly blessed, not just for the chance to compete again, but for the chance to continue my healing journey from my struggles with depression that ended my career 10 years ago,” Hayden said.
“To my teammates, I am so thankful for the time we shared together. You helped me fall back in love with swimming all over again. I am sorry I cannot be there for you on your road to Paris, but I will be cheering you on as loudly as I can. And I’m always here if you need someone to talk to.”
One of those teammates, Josh Liendo, who followed Hayden on the historic Tokyo relay, said he can picutre Hayden’s leadoff leg like it was yesterday.
“I told him I’ll never forget that moment, that Olympic relay, feeling nothing but excitement. At first it’s me watching him to the turn and when I see his first 50 (third-fastest split of 22.84), I’m like, ‘Whoa, I’m ready to get in already.’ Then when I see him come in it doesn’t look like he’s slowing down, fading or tired. It just gave me energy, then Yuri (Kisil) got energy when he saw my energy and it just trickled back through the whole team,” Liendo said.
Liendo went on to win three medals at the FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) in Abu Dhabi last December. The 19-year-old said Hayden left a positive influence he will take with him throughout his career.
“We didn’t know each other for that long but I learned some really valuable lessons from him,” Liendo said. “His preparation going into a race, his mentality going into racing, the way he carries himself, that fight he has going into a race. I also learned I’ve got to take care of my body as much as I can. Him coming back was nothing short of amazing and I wish him success in his next chapter.”
Hayden, who first retired after his 100-m freestyle bronze medal at the London 2012 Games, emailed High Performance Director John Atkinson about a potential comeback when the national team was competing at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships. Atkinson responded enthusiastically and made arrangements for Hayden to train at the High Performance Centre – Vancouver and reunite him with his longtime coach Tom Johnson.
“I am so thankful for all the support Swimming Canada has given me in this comeback. Without their belief that a 36-year-old who had spent seven years out of the water could make a serious attempt, none of this would have been possible,” Hayden said. “Through all the victories and defeats we’ve experienced, the laughs and tears we’ve shared, the chance to do this one last time with Tom has meant the world to me.”
“We were ready to help him come back and he did a tremendous job in his comeback. Not only making the Games, but being a key member of the team. He helped the men’s 4×100 freestyle relay team place fourth in the final, and the impact he had with that team will stay with Swimming Canada through Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028,” Atkinson said. “We wish him all the best in his future endeavours and hope to keep him involved in some way.”
Hayden’s long list of accomplishments includes gold in the 100-m freestyle at the 2007 FINA World Championships, Canada’s first world swimming title in 21 years. He made his national team debut in 2002 and won four relay medals between the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England and Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in Yokohama, Japan. He won hardware on home soil when he earned a pair of silver relay medals at the 2005 worlds in Montreal, a year after his Olympic debut in Athens. He added individual silver in the 100-m freestyle at the 2011 worlds in Shanghai.
He set multiple Canadian records and was part of two relay world records set at the 2009 British Gas Short Course Swimming Grand Prix in Leeds, UK. He was a double gold medallist in the 50- and 100-m freestyle at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India. That added to his three-medal haul from the 2006 Games in Melbourne. At Pan Pacs he won six medals, including a gold in 100-m freestyle in 2006 in Victoria.
Johnson said Hayden will go down as one of the best Canadian swimmers of all time.
“He’s won every single major international competition other than the Olympic Games, and he won bronze there and made four Olympic teams,” Johnson said. “He did everything he wanted to do, he exceeded the expectations of himself and many other people. He should be proud of everything he achieved and the contributions he made to the men’s team, particularly that 4×100 relay at the Olympic Games.
“People respect his sportsmanship, his tenacity and his competitiveness. It’s really an outstanding career. There aren’t many people who have ever successfully staged a comeback to the level he did. A lot of coaches came up to me and were just flabbergasted by what he was able to do, which is just a credit to him. I wish him all the best, and the team all the best in the future.”
His fellow London 2012 medallist, three-time Olympian Ryan Cochrane also had glowing words to say about his former teammate.
“Not only was Brent an incredible athlete when he stood on the Olympic podium in 2012, but with quite a few odds against him, he performed at a level which was downright impressive nine years later,” said Cochrane, who retired after the Rio 2016 Games. “It’s inspiring to see an athlete discard age as a factor and follow their passion no matter what that might bring.”