Brent Hayden: 100-metre Freestyle World Champion

The entire Canadian Olympic SWIM team took a beating in Athens, but Brent Hayden, then a green 20-year-old, took it more literally than the rest. The team left the 2004 Summer Games without a single medal for the first time in 40 years, a performance that cost head coach Dave Johnson his job.

Brent Hayden: 100-metre Freestyle World Champion

The entire Canadian Olympic SWIM team took a beating in Athens, but Brent Hayden, then a green 20-year-old, took it more literally than the rest. The team left the 2004 Summer Games without a single medal for the first time in 40 years, a performance that cost head coach Dave Johnson his job. Hayden also came home with a wounded psyche and an injured arm, the result of a pummelling by Greek police after he was caught in a riot in the city's club district the night before the closing ceremonies. With rubber bullets flying, Hayden and his buddies retreated to the bar they'd just been in. "I'm just standing in the doorway and the police pull me out by the back of my shirt and beat me up." He was never given a reasonable explanation, or an apology. "They said it was because I was tall," says the six-foot-four Hayden, still rankled by the experience, "and because I was wearing a black shirt."

The injuries soured his OLYMPIC experience and kept him out of the next world championships. "Coming out of that, he hurt pretty badly, emotionally and physically," says his long-time coach Tom Johnson, the twin brother of the former head coach, Dave Johnson. "There was some real repair work that needed to be done." Johnson says Hayden entered Athens a naive young man: "A kid from Mission, B.C., going into that arena not really understanding the bloody nature of an Olympic Games, and the finality of it." He emerged a much stronger person, says Johnson. "You get your nose bloodied and take a licking like that, you do one of two things: you either roll over and call it a day, or you stand up and fight. He stood up and fought."

Hayden, on a recent training day at the University of British Columbia aquatic centre, says he has a more mature sense of the commitment needed for Olympic success. As trite as it sounds, he says, "it's not just going to come to you, you've got to work for it." His new focus paid off last year in Melbourne, Australia, when he won the world 100-metre freestyle championship in a thrilling dead heat with Italian Filippo Magnini. The first-place tie - in typical Hayden come-from-behind fashion - was Canada's first swimming world championship since Victor Davis, 21 years ago.

Hayden, if he can overcome back spasms that have dogged him this spring, is Canada's best hope for a swimming medal in Beijing. He's qualified in both the 100-metre and 200-metre freestyle events. His success, though, is symptomatic of a turnaround by the national swim program, under head coach and Swimming Canada CEO Pierre Lafontaine. Ten Canadian records fell to a rejuvenated team at the Olympic qualifying trials in Montreal in April. Lafontaine serves as both cheerleader and chief enforcer. He neatly summed up the new expectations in a frustrated aside to swimmer Keith Beavers at the Pan American Games in Brazil last summer. "Stop being a Canadian," he snapped, "and just beat people."

Tom Johnson credits Lafontaine with being the public face of a new attitude. Though, in defence of his brother, the former head coach, he adds: "I think a lot of the work that was put in place before Athens has come into fruition, to be quite honest." He cites a leaner, more focused board of directors at Swim Canada, an influx of funding, and greater support from the Canadian Olympic Committee. "They've significantly altered their mindset," he says, "in bringing the high-performance paradigm to work, as opposed to 'It's great you have a trip and a track suit.' "

The margin between win and loss is microscopic at Hayden's elite level. Five swimmers in his world championship race last year finished within .05 of a second of each other. "Where," asks Johnson, "do you find those hundredths of a second?" Science offers part of the answer. If the high-tech Speedo LZR swimsuit lives up to its hype, expect swimmers from all nations to blow Olympic records out of the water. The controversial suits were only available to Canadian swimmers in one race, the 4x100-metre medley relay, at the Olympic qualifiers. Three seconds were lopped off the Canadian record. Hayden missed that relay because of his bad back - a back he injured, ironically, posing weeks earlier in a Speedo photo shoot for the LZR.

Since the suits should be available to all swimmers in Beijing, they will convey no real advantage. Hayden's hunt for microseconds has taken other directions. Throughout his swimming career he'd been plagued by a cough. He'd assumed it was caused by chlorine, "but I could never figure out why none of the other swimmers were experiencing the same problem." Concern over coping with Beijing's infamous air pollution led to medical tests that revealed a surprise diagnosis: asthma. Hayden received permission from swimming's governing body to use an inhaler. An exemption is needed because the steroids in some asthma medications could trigger a positive doping test. The diagnosis came months after the world championship race last year. "I've gone this far without medication," he says. "I don't think I need it to keep going, but it's going to help a little bit."

A greater advantage came from a high-tech analysis of Hayden's "slow" start off the blocks, at least relative to other top swimmers. "He has a little bit of a minor type of autism," says Johnson. "It has something to do with an auditory nerve that affects his reaction time." Hayden explains it this way: "It's kind of a wiring problem, I have too many neurons firing when I'm hearing, so it caused a lot of brain fatigue." It takes infinitesimally longer to process sounds, like a starter's signal. "I'd always find myself behind - I became known as a good catch-up racer." Once he was moving in the water, however, a metre-by-metre analysis showed Hayden was as fast as the best competition. Johnson called in biomechanist Allan Wrigley from Pacific Sport, the support agency for high-performance athletes. Months of work on the mechanics of Hayden's start shaved more than half a second off his time in the first 15 metres. "It's huge," says Johnson. "Instead of being at somebody's feet, he's at somebody's shoulder, and by 25 or 50 metres, he's even. That's one of the major things that has resulted in him becoming truly world-class."

That, and the mental toughness forged by the bruising legacy of Athens. "I didn't want that to be the pinnacle of my career: 'What did Brent Hayden do in Canadian swimming? Oh, he sucked at the Olympics and then he got beat up.' Great," he says with a deep, rumbling chuckle. "I want to be somebody that people can look back on and say, he really accomplished something."

BRENT HAYDEN: OLYMPIC NUGGETS

Why swimming? My parents put me in it. My sister was doing it. I wasn't good at other sports, so drop the kids off at one place.

Remember your first competition? I remember my first award: six and under, Abbotsford Whalers. You didn't win for each event, you went for total points at the end of the meet. I won the aggregate award. It's a little plaque I still keep on my wall where I live in Vancouver. It just reminds me that every win should be as important.

Pre-race ritual? It depends on my mood. Either I want to talk with my teammates and joke it up, or I just sit there wide-eyed and nervous.

Any guilty pleasure? I like to play Call of Duty a little too much, a video game I play online.

Most embarrassing moment in competition? I was about eight. I had to go to the bathroom really bad before a race but I didn't have time. They were having a problem with the starter so they told us to get off the block and stand down. I didn't hear them whistle us back up so I just stood there behind the block and peed in my Speedo, with all the other kids standing up there on the blocks, turning around. My teammate was pointing and laughing at me.

Inspirational quote? My favourite quote is from my dad: "Do your best and have fun." That's pretty much what I've lived by.

Secret to surviving on Canada's amateur sport funding? I've been fortunate enough to pick up some sponsors, but pre-sponsors, it was really tough. Since I've been able to afford my own groceries, I don't think I've had that President's Choice white mac and cheese in a long time. I used to eat that like five times a week.

Any post-competition plans? I want to backpack Europe, hopefully with a couple of my teammates. I want to start in England, then take the train. Just make sure we finish off in Germany for Oktoberfest.

Maclean's July 7, 2008