There are lessons and then there are Olympic lessons. For Brent Hayden, his are simple: Don't be caught at night by local police officers carrying clubs and don't hold back in the 100-metres freestyle heats.
Hayden, you could argue, has a world-class education in the shock and ouch of the Olympic Games. In 2004, he was mistakenly clubbed by Athenian police and needed assistance from the Canadian Olympic Committee and RCMP to secure his release. In Beijing four years later, he entered the Games as the world 100-metres free champion and didn't get out of the semi-finals. That was the beating that hurt the most.
Now, the 28-year-old water sprinter from Mission, B.C., is back for a third Olympics, this time as a world silver medalist in the 100. To work his way back to the semi-finals in London, Hayden will race Tuesday in the same heat as Fabien Gilot of France and James (Missile) Magnussen of Australia. If he stays close to Magnussen, who has posted the fastest time in the 100 this year, Hayden could write a new chapter in his Olympic memoirs, one with a more pleasing turn.
"I've come into these Olympics with more of a mature mindset," Hayden said of his changes. "Before it was, 'Oh my God, it's the Olympics.' It was this huge new world. Beijing, I had a lot of expectations. I kind of let that get the better of me. This time I'm focused on performance, just racing as fast as I can and not thinking about anything else."
To get Hayden race ready, his coaches have been working on various aspects of his swim. In an event as quick as the 100, the dive is exceedingly important. Hayden has been working on his, trying to hit the water at the proper angle to set up his first stroke.
"He's done some things with Tom [Johnson, Hayden's coach]," said Pierre Lafontaine, Swimming Canada's national coach. "We've set up different testing protocol, different training protocol to help him have a better start. We've had help from many groups to surround and build a better structure so there's more quality around him. The rest is up to him."
Hayden has worked to perfect the physical elements of his event, which he likes better than the 50-metre free because it hurts more. "In the 100, the way back is a completely new world. It's excruciating," he said. "You're running your engines at 7,500, 8,000 rpms. You just run out of gas but you have to keep going."
He did that in Athens, after being caught in a downtown skirmish between hostile locals and police. He did the same in Beijing, using his disappointment in the 100 ("I tried to save up a little energy … it didn't work") to reinvigorate himself. Having already raced with the 4x100-metre relay team that failed to make the final here, Hayden has the stimulus needed for what could be his final Olympic swims in the individual 100.
He has talked about retiring from competitive swimming soon, about his love for photography and about getting married to his fiancée Nadina Zarifeh, a Lebanese-Canadian pop singer. The other day here, he also spoke of staying in the sport and helping the next wave of Canadian swimmers.
"I plan on sticking around in some way. I feel I've got a lot to pass on and I don't want it to go to waste. I've learned all the goods and the bads," he said. "It's been one huge life-learning experience for me."
Hayden is also scheduled to swim in the medley relay and the bullet-fast 50-metre freestyle.