Sometimes, the most fearsome man on the block turns out to be your best friend.
Brent Hayden of Mission, B.C., used help from one of sprint racing's fastest men off the starting blocks to win the silver medal in the world championship 100-metre freestyle race in Shanghai.
And the start felt so good he'll test methods taught him by South African Roland Schoeman again on Friday in qualifying races for the 50-metre freestyle.
"I had the worst starting time at the Pan Pacific [championships]but I have one of the best starting times now," Hayden said after winning the 100-metre silver in 47.95 seconds behind the Australian phenom, 20-year-old James Magnussen, who took the title in 47.63 seconds.
Hayden's medal is Canada's fifth at the world championships after 13 days as the diving and swim teams cast an eye to the 2012 London Games. While the country has yet to strike gold (16 other countries have), it ranks ninth on the total medals list. There's a possibility of Canada increasing its medal haul on Friday, when Vancouver's Annamay Pierse and Toronto's Martha McCabe race in the women's 200-metre breaststroke.
Pierre Lafontaine, Swimming Canada's chief executive officer and national coach, said last week that swimmers would need a top-five finish in Shanghai to have a legitimate hope for a medal at next summer's Olympics. "I think it's where the swimmers will establish their position in the world," Lafontaine said.
Hayden is looking forward to London, too. This spring, he used money from the private sports investment organization B2ten to bring three-time world champ Schoeman to Vancouver to work on Hayden's starts. Start technique is critical, especially now that swimming's governing body, FINA, has outlawed water-shedding non-permeable swim suits. Schoeman changed Hayden's mechanics on the starting block and streamlined him.
"It's going to be hard to judge just how good it is until we get to the 50, but definitely one of the things that was positive was the work I'd done with Schoeman on the start in Vancouver," Hayden said.
Hayden tied for the 2007 world championship with Italian Filippo Magnini and ended up as the top-ranked 100-metre man last season. But in between, he'd had it rough. Both he and the Italian failed to make the final for the 2008 Olympic race. At the Commonwealth Games, Hayden came down with an intestinal bug known as Delhi Belly. He refused to get on a scale to weigh himself, afraid he'd be psyched out by the weight loss.
That turned out to be the right move. He won races at the Commonwealths, including a sprint against Schoeman. But Hayden had struggled psychologically at a couple of tune-up meets this year because he wasn't upholding his No. 1 ranking from last year. Coach Tom Johnson had elected to bypass some world events for blocks of hard training. He said he knew Hayden was swimming slower than his best times, but was confident Hayden's hard work would show when it mattered. It came together on Thursday.
"We put the emphasis on more training this season and reduced the number of competitions," Johnson said, "but we stayed the course and kept moving forward. It really bodes well for the future."
"I knew I had done a 47.98 less than a year ago at the Commonwealth Games so that was something that I kept in mind," said Hayden, who has the Canadian record of 47.27. "I really took the experience I have gained over the years and applied it for this final." He said getting a podium place was "awesome ... The work I had done on the start really paid off with my reaction time off the blocks being one of the best."
Magnussen, in his first international meet, swam 47.49 seconds on a Monday relay leg in which he destroyed U.S. star Michael Phelps "and was probably going to be the one to beat. It was just a question to where I fit on the podium," Hayden said. The Canadian said he received last-minute inspiration when he looked up at the live TV coverage and saw his fiancée, Nadina, in the stands with his parents.
Magnussen took the lead from former winner and world record holder (46.91) Cesar Cielo of Brazil after 50 metres and won in 47.63 seconds. William Meynard of France won bronze in 48.00 while Cielo finished fourth.
Ryan Lochte of the United States established the first world record of the championships, by winning the men's 200-metre individual medley in a time of 1:54.00. The previous record was 1:54.10.
Julia Wilkinson of Stratford, Ont., was sixth in the 50 backstroke in a Canadian record 28.09. Wilkinson joined Barbara Jardin of Montreal, Samantha Cheverton of Pointe-Claire, Que., and Brittany MacLean of Toronto for seventh in the 4 x 200 freestyle relay, earning Canada a spot in the Olympics next summer in London.
In the men's 200 breaststroke semi-final, Mike Brown of Calgary, who retired "and was working a 9-to-5 job in a cubicle," came back to finish ninth in the world after a fourth-place finish at the Beijing Olympics.
In men's water polo, Canada squandered a 3-0 second-quarter lead and lost 8-6 to Australia to finish the tournament 10th. Canada's women's water polo team concludes its tournament Friday in a seventh-place match against the Netherlands.
The country hasn't won a gold yet at the world championships, but has been on the podium with Hayden and 800-metre freestyler Ryan Cochrane of Victoria (both silvers); the synchro diving tandem of Jennifer Abel and Émilie Heymans (silver, three-metre springboard); diver Abel (individual bronze in three-metre springboard); and the synchronized swim team (bronze in free combination).
With a report from The Canadian Press