Swimming World Comeback Swimmer of the Year: Brent Hayden

Brent Hayden-Olympic Swimming Trials-f-21june2021Photo Scott Grant
Brent Hayden; Photo Courtesy: Scott Grant

Swimming World Comeback Swimmer of the Year: Brent Hayden

The first thing about Brent Hayden to greet you at the Olympics in Tokyo, masked or not, was the beaming smile.

It was a world and a lifetime away from Hayden’s stay in London in 2012. That Games brought the Canadian swimmer a measure of validation in a bronze medal in the men’s 100 freestyle. But before the London Olympics had even closed, Hayden, his back spasming and his mental condition deteriorating, had bid farewell to a sport he no longer enjoyed.

That Hayden would’ve never thought he’d be swimming competitively at age 37, much less challenging decade-old best times, and doing so with a profound joy just for being in the water. But such was the distance Hayden had traversed in his 30s, from achieving peace at his career’s first ending to finding joy in restarting it.

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Brent Hayden; Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

Hayden’s road back to the water started in 2019. After years away, he found himself loving it again, whether taking a dip in his wife’s family’s pool in her native Lebanon or teaching at swim camps. “It’s kind of like finding something that you thought you lost, that you thought was gone forever,” Hayden said.

As he saw sprinters like Anthony Ervin and close friend Bruno Fratus extending their careers, he started to wonder if he might make a run at the Tokyo Games. If worse came to worst, it would be less than a year until the summer of 2020.

When the pandemic delayed the Games a year, Hayden had a fallback. He wanted to return for a reason beyond personal enjoyment. In a young and talented corps of Canadian male swimmers, burgeoning on the international scene after a largely fallow decade since his retirement, Hayden found it.

Hayden derived no small amount of joy from pointing out that he’d made the national team before fellow standout sprinter Joshua Liendo was born. Seeing Liendo and Finlay Knox flourish, rewriting the Canadian record book in the process, helped make the return worth it.

Hayden was happy with his performance in Tokyo; perhaps more importantly, as compared to his previous Olympic trip, he was at peace with it. He amazingly made the semifinals in the 50 freestyle, his only individual event, finishing tied for ninth. The time of 21.82 was within a tenth of his Canadian record from the 2009 World Championships. Factor in the super suit he wore then, and 37-year-old Hayden would’ve beaten 26-year-old Hayden. He teamed with Liendo, Yuri Kisil and Markus Thormeyer in producing a shocking fourth-place finish in the men’s 400 free relay in a Canadian record 3:10.82, just sixth tenths off a medal. Hayden led off in 47.99. He’d gone 47.80 to win bronze in London.

“It feels good to be back, that’s for sure,” Hayden said after the relay. “Definitely missed the thrill of the competition. It was a huge honor going out there and leading these guys in this relay. I don’t think anyone was expecting us to be in that final. No one was expecting us to be in the hunt for a medal, but we showed that Canada means business here. We’ve got a great group of guys.”

Hayden’s leadership hasn’t stopped at the Games. Back issues limited him in the International Swimming League season, but he remains a sage-like presence behind the scenes for the Toronto Titans, a club he’s grown with the last two years. He was elated to see Liendo take down his super-suited short-course national record from 2009 in December at the FINA Short-Course World Championships.

Whatever is next for Hayden, he’s found joy in the pool again. That may mean Paris – the title of “40-year-old Olympian Brent Hayden” would’ve sounded no less ridiculous than “37-year-old Olympian Brent Hayden” just two years ago. Either way, he’s right where he wants to be.

“This means that I made the right decision to come back,” he said in Tokyo. “After being out of the sport for seven years, less than two years of training and I throw down a sub-48 100 meter freestyle. … I don’t regret my decision in London; I think at the time it was right. But I’m really thankful that I had the support from the people around me to come back to the sport and fall in love with it all over again.”

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