After winning bronze at the London 2012 Summer Olympics, Mission’s Brent Hayden says he avoided the pool.
In fact, the champion swimmer said he’d developed a negative relationship with the water when he promptly retired.
The path to reach the podium had scarred the then three-time Olympian. He suffered from depression, ‘toxic’ problems in his personal life, debilitating back spasms – he no longer loved the sport.
“That was supposed to be the best year of my life, and it sucked,” Hayden said. “I didn’t leave the sport in a good place.”
When he returned for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for the fourth time at the age of 37, he was the oldest swimmer at the games, but that didn’t seem to matter.
He was in a different place mentally.
Although he didn’t come home with any medals, Hayden proved he remains one of the world’s fastest.
Hayden and the Canadian Men’s 4×100 Metre Freestyle team narrowly missed a bronze medal on July 25, being edged out by just 0.3 seconds, but posted Canada’s best-ever time in the event. He became the oldest swimmer to go 100 metres in under 48 seconds.
On July 30, he missed advancing to the Men’s 50 Metre Freestyle Finals by just 0.04 seconds, placing ninth, and again, posting a personal-best time.
But in 2012, Hayden said he needed to step away from the sport.
Back spasms had plagued his training, which, coupled with other problems, started to degrade his mental health and feelings towards competition.
“The fact that I didn’t medal in the Athens Olympics and the Beijing Olympics – I was seeing my opportunity to medal at the London games fading away. It was taking a huge toll on me,” he said.
“I would just be like falling backwards again. One step forward, two steps back. One step forward, two steps back.”
His training regime at the time included swimming 12 kilometres a day, weight training, and “putting my body under a lot of stress.” Then a back spasm would strike and sideline him for days.
Before the games he had countless emergency meetings and phone calls with his coach and team psychologist to help him cope with the depression.
Hayden credits those closest to him – his wife, family, friends, and team, anyone “willing to listen” – for even making it to London.
“It was really important to me not to bottle it up and let it eat away at me from the inside,” he said, adding the dialogue around mental health in sports has changed since 2012.
“There’s this idea that, as athletes, we have to appear tough all the time, because we are competitors … We’re kind of indoctrinated to not let people see you be vulnerable.”
He points to U.S. gymnast, Simone Biles, and U.K. swimmer, Adam Peaty, two Olympians coming off medal-winning performances who stepped away from the Tokyo games to focus on their mental health.
Sometimes taking your “foot off the pedal,” is the best career decision, he said; time away helped him return stronger.
Hayden spent seven years in retirement working on his photography and becoming an entrepreneur, the latter of which led him to “rediscover” his love for the water.
He’d been filming a swimming curriculum called “Swimming Secrets” when he decided to start a comeback.
“I remembered all the little moments in between the big moments that I actually treasured. It wasn’t just about the podiums,” he said. “I didn’t come back to the sport because I needed to find myself.”
During his time away, Hayden said he’d learned how to better manage problems as they arose. And training through the pandemic put that to the test.
All pools, gyms and training facilities were closed, so Hayden trained with stress cords in a backyard pool, put on a wetsuit and swam laps in lakes, and even used his wife’s old workout DVDs.
He said he still has the occasional back issue, including tweaking the muscle the day before the semi-finals in Tokyo, but he now has strategies to rebound faster.
“I felt comfortable, with my team and things that I could do, that I could manage it without it affecting my performance,” he said.
“I was still able to get up on the blocks, confident.”
Hayden is not heading back to retirement. He flies to Naples, Italy, on Aug. 23 for six weeks to compete in the International Swim League, representing the Toronto Titans for the second year running.
He’s not counting out a fifth Olympic run at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.
“I think I’m just going to take it one step at a time and see where that journey goes, because as long as I’m still enjoying it – I’m still genuinely loving being back in the sport – then I’m just going to keep going,” he said.
“And if that takes me to Paris, then I’ll see you in Paris.”