LONDON — You hear these words so often at every Olympics, after a while you start to think they are just words.
Perseverance, dedication, passion.
Then Brent Hayden swims the ballsiest 100-metre freestyle race of his life — not the fastest, nor even close to it, but the most important — at age 28, when he knows there won’t be any more of them, ever.
Swims it when he’s past his prime and most of the field in the eight-lane final is probably quicker than him, if the truth were known (only he doesn’t want to know the truth), and butterflies the size of crows are doing loop-de-loops in his guts.
Swims it at the Olympics, the intimidating beast that has always defeated him, four years after he outsmarted himself in Beijing, which made him go back to the drawing board and examine everything about the way he does this sport.
Swims it in front of teammates, and his coach of 11 years, Tom Johnson, holding their collective breath, praying that just once, things will go his way.
And damned if he doesn’t do it.
Shaved bald, tattooed with the superman symbol on his chest and the Olympic rings below the maple leaf on his back, this giant of a man from Mission, B.C. took the last shot at swimming glory he will ever have and made the most of it, fighting every stroke for a bronze medal in the race that crowns the fastest man in the water.
It wasn’t gold — that went to American Nathan Adrian, by 1/100th of a second over world champion James Magnussen of Australia — but it was a very precious metal, nonetheless.
“I was so nervous when I woke up this morning, the day of the Olympic final, with all the stuff that happened in Beijing,” he said. “I woke up at 6 a.m., my heart pounding because I was thinking about the race ... the best of day of my life felt like the worst day of my life.
“And then all throughout the day, I just kept having these moments when I’d kind of start thinking about the rate of my heart and had to keep saying: ‘not yet, not yet ...’
“My back was not happy with me today, either. I had like three spinal adjustments today to get it to settle down, but I put a lot of faith in my team, and it really was a whole team effort.”
He outswam the world record holder, Brazil’s Cesar Cielo, 25, and he outswam France’s Yannick Agnel, 20, who anchored the gold medal 4x100 relay team last weekend and won the 200-metre freestyle.
“I looked at the heat sheet before the final, and they’re generally about five years younger than Brent is,” said Johnson who, after 40 years in the coaching game, finally got his first individual swimmer onto the podium.
But first, Hayden had to sit down on the edge of the pool.
“My legs just felt too heavy to stand up. So I just took a moment to think about what I just did. I kind of had the urge to kiss the starting block, because I never knew I could love Lane 7 so much.”
Hayden aced his start, once a major weakness of his, and was just 1/100th behind Cielo at the 50-metre mark, but blew past him coming home.
“I think tonight it was just digging down right into my soul. Physically I probably wasn’t that fast, but spiritually and emotionally, I had that extra push to get me beyond what I was capable of,” he said.
Hayden called the bronze medal swim a team effort, and that it surely was.
He rebuilt his game, from the starting block out, at the University of British Columbia, with Johnson and biomechanist Allan Wrigley, and resources provided by an altruistic, publicity-shy group called B2ten that funded a couple of sets of modern starting blocks, a visit from a South African savant in the art of the start, Roland Schoeman, and a trip to Estonia for Johnson and Wrigley to sweet-talk a sophisticated swim-analysis program out of a university professor of biomechanics named Rein Haljand.
He mentioned every one of them by name Wednesday night.
“The start was ... not everything, but for the first 25 metres it was everything,” Hayden said. “I just knew I had to stick with all the work I’ve done with Allan and Roland Schoeman and Rein Haljand and my coach. I learned a lot over the last few years, and I knew if I just stuck to what I knew and didn’t freak out in the moment and try something a little bit different, it was going to be okay.”
“The big thing is that he always swims well when he goes out fast,” Johnson said. “He managed to do a great job with the start, and that’s probably what did it for him more than anything, that he was up front in the swim. By 85 metres, it looked like he could win, and if he’d been a bit closer [in lanes], it might have been different, but you know, he was racing as hard as he could, and those guys were hooked up eyeball to eyeball and that’s maybe what the difference was.”
Hayden’s time, 47.80, was a long way off his 2009 personal best of 47.27, at the world championships in Rome, but he’s three years older now. Old enough to know that time was almost up. Old enough that he wasn’t sure what he was seeing on the scoreboard when he turned to look at the results after touching the wall.
“It’s because my eyes don’t see so good, that’s why I wear glasses,” he said, grinning. “It was just like [winning] worlds in 2007, I couldn’t tell if it was a 1 or a 7, tonight I couldn’t tell if it was a 3 or an 8. I didn’t want to get all super-excited for eighth place and look like an idiot.”
And then he was off to do doping control and accept his bronze medal. The presenter, Dick Pound, was the last Canadian to swim in a 100-metre final, 52 years ago. No Canadian man had ever won a medal in that race until Brent Hayden did it Wednesday.
Maybe he could have retired without the Olympic medal and told himself he was satisfied with his career, but Johnson doesn’t think so.
“I mean, he’s got a set now, medals from every single major championship that there is, so ... pretty good athlete, right?” he said.
“He had a medal in Beijing, it’s not that he didn’t swim well, he just miscalculated, made a mental error, thinking about the relay and the fact that it didn’t go very well in Athens, and he thought: ‘I’m going to just hedge my bets a little’ — but there’s no easy swims in the Olympics, ever.
“He didn’t make that mistake here,” Johnson said. “The semis were probably a little more nerve-wracking because he had to get over the line, and once he got over the line ... and Brent’s a great sportsman, he loves to compete. The bigger, the tougher the race, the better he is.
“I’ve coached Brent for 11 years, it’s like being married — some good, some not so good,” said Johnson. “But he’s a great, great guy, and there isn’t a mean bone in his body. He has never looked back, just kept pushing on.”
Seconds after the race, Canadian women’s hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser (@wick_22) tweeted this message: “Brent Hayden: thx for showin my 12yrold swimmer what perseverance, dedication and passion looks like!”
Not just words, evidently.