The trials of Brent Hayden

Brent Hayden understands more than anyone the high expectations placed on his broad shoulders once he steps onto the pool deck at the Summer Olympics.

Canada’s medal chances in the pool rest on the shoulders of the powerful freestyler

Brent Hayden will carry the hopes of the entire Canadian swim team with him when he reaches Beijing in August. ((Scott Grant/Swimming Canada))


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Brent Hayden understands more than anyone the high expectations placed on his broad shoulders once he steps onto the pool deck at the Summer Olympics.

From the moment he captured gold at the 2007 world aquatics championships in Melbourne, Hayden has been billed as the only Canadian swimmer with a legitimate chance to earn an individual medal in Beijing. He is also a podium threat with the rest of the men's 4 x 200-metre freestyle team.

The challenge for Hayden is to avoid the pitfalls that have befallen other Canadian swimmers in the past. Allison Higson, for one, crumbled under the intense pressure when she was considered one of the best in the world. Although she was the world-record holder in the women's 200 breaststroke, a petrified Higson swam a timid race en route to a seventh-place finish in her signature event at the 1988 Seoul Games.

Few, if any, anticipate a similar fate for Hayden, but the Mission, B.C., swimmer won't allow pre-Olympic jitters to dictate how he performs in Beijing.

"I think some athletes are bothered by that kind of pressure, but my relaxed attitude keeps me grounded," he told "I put enough pressure on myself because I want to win a medal and I'm not really worried about what other people expect of me."

No swim medals in Athens

Hayden, 24, can appreciate why he's been the centre of attention for more than a year. The Canadian swim team is coming off its worst Olympic performance after being shut out in Athens.

Hayden, centre, is the first Canadian to win a world title since the late Victor Davis. ((Mark Baker/Associated Press))
In addition, Canada has been credited with just one medal this millennium, a bronze earned by Curtis Myden in the 400 individual medley eight years ago in Sydney. Of course, Hayden would never admit to the perception that he's a one-man swim team and passionately defends the national program's prospects for Beijing.

"We have so many good people on the swim team," said Hayden. "Mike Brown got a silver medal at the world championships in 2005 and Brian Johns is a former world-record holder. We have a lot of people that are going to be able to step it up and the depth of the program is increasing."

Regardless of this public endorsement, Hayden remains a cut above the rest of the Canadian team, with last season's world championships proving to be his crowning achievement.

Hayden and Italian Filippo Magnini touched the wall at the same time in the 100-metre freestyle, and both were awarded gold medals. Hayden initially thought he had lost because he saw Magnini's name beside the No. 1 slot on the scoreboard. "My heart sank a bit, but when I saw my name at the top as well, it hit me," he told reporters following the race.

With that victory, Hayden became the first Canadian to win a world title since the late Victor Davis in 1986.

Bittersweet moment
While the victory was his defining moment as a swimmer, Hayden went through a bittersweet moment. Prior to leaving for Australia, Hayden visited his grandfather on his death bed, making a touching promise that he would return with a medal.
Hayden made a touching promise to his grandfather, who died four days before his grandson's biggest win. ((Scott Grant/Swimming Canada))

But four days before his big event, Hayden received the grim news from home that his grandfather had died. Racing with a heavy heart and the added pressure of a bold prediction, he made good on his pledge.

"He was the last person I was thinking about before I got onto the block and my first thought after I realized I won the gold medal," Hayden said. "It was really hard trying not to cry in my interviews because I knew I wasn't going to see him when I got home."

Hayden's mental state has been tested throughout his road to Beijing. Shortly after the Olympic swim events were completed in Athens four years ago, Hayden and some of the other athletes decided to celebrate by enjoying a night out on the town. As the group emerged from a nightclub at 3 a.m., Hayden noticed a throng of people gathering and began to realize he was walking toward a street demonstration.

He tried to duck into another crowded pub to avoid any potential melee, but was grabbed and dragged back onto the street by a police officer. Hayden was then beaten with batons and kicked repeatedly by several cops. A complaint to the Greek government fell on deaf ears, leaving Hayden emotionally and physically scarred.

Mental breakdowns
"I was seeing a psychologist and it took me a couple of months to get over it," he explains. "When I was trying to get back into training I'd have mental breakdowns and just start crying. I would tell my coach, Tom Johnson, that I had to go home."
The biggest obstacle for Hayden this season has been the slow recovery from a back injury he suffered during a photo shoot in early March. ((Mark J Terrill/Associated Press))

Two years later, Hayden was diagnosed with asthma and he requires the use of an inhaler about 50 minutes before every race to open up his lungs.

His biggest obstacle this season has been the slow recovery from a back injury he suffered during a photo shoot in early March. Hayden was modelling the new Speedo LZR Racer suit in Los Angeles when his back tightened up, the result of hours of posing.

He still competed at the Canadian Olympic trials in April and won his 100 freestyle event. However, Hayden was in so much pain that he had to be taken to hospital in an ambulance and an MRI revealed a small bulge in one of the disks in his lower back.

"The bulge was really close to a nerve and sometimes it would touch, which sent my muscles into a spasm," he said.

For weeks, Hayden could barely endure the twists and turns while training in the pool. It wasn't until recently that the rehab has significantly improved and he expects to be completely healthy well before the Olympic Games.

In spite of all that's happened in the past four years, the man many consider Canada's only real swimming hopeful deals with his problems the same way he handles questions regarding the heightened medal expectations for Beijing.

"I'm a strong person and I just don't let any of the negative things become the defining moment of my career."

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