Swimmer Brent Hayden coming out of retirement with renewed focus
'I’m training as if I’m going for medal,' B.C. native says of his Olympic pursuit
In his home town of Mission, B.C., there's a mural painted on the local recreation centre which bears his likeness.
On the day he won his bronze medal in the 100-metre freestyle swimming race at the London Olympics in 2012, the mayor of the town declared it a civic holiday.
He even has an annual, invitational aquatic meet named in his honour.
Brent Hayden had a career as one of the most successful men's sprinting swimmers in Canadian history. He'd been the world champion in 2007, the Commonwealth champion in 2010, and finally captured an elusive Olympic medal, the first by any Canadian in one of the sport's most high profile events.
And then he abruptly called it quits.
"I retired because I was putting an end to the worst year of my life," Hayden told CBC Sports from his home in Vancouver.
"I was spiralling towards depression. My back was in terrible shape and constantly in spasm. Those around me and closest to me had created a toxic environment. I got that medal in spite of everything. I felt it was time to try and end on a high note while I still could."
Now, two days after his 36th birthday, Hayden is announcing he's diving back into the pool and is an Olympic hopeful for Tokyo 2020.
"That medal came at a cost," he reflected. "I'm glad I got it for myself and for Canada. But I got it when I had fallen out of love with swimming."
Hayden has spent the seven years since he last raced competitively at the Olympics doing a variety of things.
He went to Lebanon directly after the Games and got married to Nadina, who is a singer/songwriter/musician. He appeared on the CBC television show "Canada's Smartest Person" and although he didn't win, he made an impression.
He and his wife have launched a very successful line of athletic and leisure clothing known as "Astra Athletica."
Hayden also runs a series of well-attended swim camps for youth, both in Canada and internationally, that focus on training methods, technique, and stroke improvement.
In addition, he continues to follow his artistic passion for contemporary photography.
Hayden has evolved
There is little doubt that Hayden has evolved into a man for all seasons, but the lure of a looming Olympics and another chance at winning was something he couldn't suppress any longer.
"I'm training as if I'm going for medal," he said with confidence.
"I'll focus on the 50-metre freestyle sprint because my top-end speed is already higher than it ever was. I've been working on a new entry dive. My stroke mechanism is good, and I've got at least 10 more pounds of muscle on me now than I had then. I know this is within the realm of possibility."
Although Swimming Canada is eagerly welcoming him back to the fold and he was subjected to his first drug test in seven years two weeks ago, there's still a lot of work to do for Hayden.
He's already returned to intense training sessions at the University of British Columbia's high-performance centre with his former and renowned coach Tom Johnson, but he's trying to make up for a lengthy absence from the pool which he steadfastly observed.
"I refused for seven years to swim alone, the taste in my mouth was that bad after I left," he said.
"I have probably trained more in the last month than I have in those seven years. Tom wouldn't take me back if he didn't believe I could make it. But our sprint program is deeper than in my day. Still, I'd like to be able to share my experience with the team and I'd love a chance to be a part of the mixed medley relay."
Advice from rivals
Before plowing headfirst into his second competitive career, Hayden spoke with several of his former rivals and contemporaries, including Brazil's Bruno Fratus, a four-time world championship medallist, South Africa's Olympic sprint champion Roland Schoeman, and his co-world champion in 2007 in the 100 freestyle, Filippo Magnini of Italy.
But according to Hayden the most important advice and inspiration came from his friend Anthony Ervin of the United States.
Ervin won his first gold medal in the 50 freestyle at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. It was not until he was 35 years of age that Ervin won gold again in the 50 freestyle at the Rio de Janeiro Games of 2016.
For Hayden the years which have elapsed since his last big race have not yet been a deterrent to the comeback attempt.
"I naturally asked myself: 'What if it doesn't work out?'" Hayden admitted. "What will it do to my reputation if I fail? But so far reaction has been that it looks like I never retired. It's been very positive."
The target for a return to major international competition is the third week of January. It isn't much time to get into competitive shape and be ready for the Canadian swimming trials in Toronto in late March/early April where he will be required, in spite of his impressive resume, to make the cut.
Still, as he begins to navigate a sprint to his next Olympic destination in Tokyo, Hayden is committed to the course ahead.
"I could live with trying and not making the team," he concluded.
"What I wouldn't be able to live with is not giving it a shot. I have to try. I want the chance to fall in love with my sport again."
And for Brent Hayden, that's reason enough to take the plunge this close to the Olympic Games.