Seven years ago, in my third Olympic Games, I won Canada’s first Olympic medal in the 100-metre freestyle. Days later, I announced my retirement. Everyone thought I was choosing to end my career on a high note. The truth is, I just couldn’t keep going. At the time it was the right thing to do. I was putting an end to the worst year of my life.
Back spasms had plagued my career since 2008. They were becoming more frequent, and more severe. I could hardly put in two weeks of good training without a flare up. While I was struggling to find a way to keep moving forward, the people I relied on for support were becoming toxic to me. Every day was another fight, another argument over the phone. Disputes carried on into the middle of the night, making me miss morning practices.
Between my injuries in the pool, and the toxicity outside the pool, I was feeling closed in and began spiralling into depression. Other than my coach and my wife (then fiancée), nobody knew that I had my team psychologist on call... we were often meeting twice a week.
Two weeks before the 2012 Opening Ceremonies, while at staging camp in Italy, I suffered the worst back spasm since being hospitalized and missing the 50-m free at the 2008 Olympic Trials. I was unable to walk for four days, and I almost announced my retirement before the games even began. I owe a great deal to my coach Tom Johnson and all the support staff who brought me back from the brink and got me into the pool again.
Despite the odds stacked against me, I made it to the 100 freestyle final. I walked out on deck with a jammed rib, the oldest swimmer by five years. After failing in my two previous Olympic experiences, I was feeling the pressure, to understate things considerably.
If there’s one thing that failure has taught me, is that it does not matter how well you trained. The only thing that matters is what you do when the gun goes.
I won my medal. And I will cherish it for the rest of my life. But with no end in sight for the injuries and the other conflict still unresolved, I couldn’t keep pushing myself. I began to resent swimming and all the pain it caused me. After the Olympic Games, I never wanted to swim again.
So for the next seven years, I stayed in shape by lifting weights while I pursued other passions. I continued my photography, and had a number of solo exhibitions. My work was even recently featured by Hasselblad. My wife and I launched our activewear company, Astra Athletica, for people who need a daily reminder to “rise through challenge”. And we also launched Brent Hayden Swim Camps. We have travelled all over the country to give back what I’ve learned to our future stars.
I have been asked many times over the years if I would ever consider making a comeback, and my answer was always a resounding ‘no’. I didn’t want to do the whole comeback thing. I wanted to just keep moving ahead with my life.
I watched the Rio Games come and go. I saw that my time in London would have won another medal in Rio, but still, I was okay staying retired.
That changed this summer. My wife and I (and my mother-in-law) spent three months in Lebanon, her home country. We rented a small apartment north of Beirut and I found a stunning pool nearby at the Jeita Country Club. I began swimming a few times each week.
I had an opportunity to do something that I had wanted for a long time. We filmed an entire learn-to-swim course for anyone who wants to swim like an Olympian without paying for lessons. Between my daily swims and filming the course, I realized something…I still loved swimming, and my body felt stronger than ever.
With Tokyo 2020 less than a year away, I knew that if I was going to make a comeback, I had to do it now! I reached out to my former coach, and held my breath.
In early September, I officially began training with Tom again at the High Performance Centre in Vancouver. I was 28 years old when I competed in my last Olympics. I just turned 36, and I’ve learned that age really is just a number. I feel stronger and more powerful than ever.
I have solutions for managing my back spasms. I’m already hitting times in training that are equal or faster than what I used to do, but more importantly, I have support from the most important people in my life. Perhaps it’s the strongest it’s ever been.
Will I win a medal in Tokyo? I have no idea. I can only control what I do in my own lane. But I am looking forward to the chance to represent the Maple Leaf again and show everyone that it’s never too late to chase something you love.
(All large photos by Canadian Press)