It was a surreal day for Brent Hayden.

He’d just won that long sought-after medal at the London 2012 Olympics in the 100m freestyle—a career-culminating bronze, Canada’s first-ever in the event—that had millions of Canadians dancing in their living rooms across the country. In the Aquatic Centre’s warm-down pool, Hayden was thinking over his 24 years of swimming ups and downs, just letting this defining accomplishment sink in, when next came the topper. Michael Phelps, the 18-time Olympic gold medalist in the lane over, pulled himself over the lane-rope and shook Hayden’s hand, offering congratulations on his medal performance. The exchange spoke volumes of the respect and admiration with which Hayden is held in the swimming world.

Raised in Mission, it’s hard to believe today, but Hayden wasn’t a natural when it came to swimming early on. The future world champion failed his first swimming lessons. He also wasn’t the most competitive kid. In an early race, he was more interested with the brightly-coloured fish painted on the pool floor than with keeping up with his opponents.

That would change. Learning karate under sensei Tom McDonagh of the Mission Isshin Ryu Karate Club, gave Hayden focus, respect, and discipline. His results swimming for the Mission Marlins and later Chilliwack Spartans improved immediately, all the while overcoming an auditory problem that slowed his hearing. For his last two years of high school, 3:30am wake-up calls four days a week to get to training 40km away were the norm. The hard work and sacrifices soon paid off, as Hayden rose to the national team by 2002.

He remained a member of Canada’s senior national team for the next decade under coach Tom Johnson. Over that time, Hayden fulfilled a grade school dream of becoming an Olympian at the 2004 Games in Athens. He represented Canada on the Olympic stage twice more after that.

Hayden’s London bronze medal in possibly swimming’s most hotly-contested event ended up as one of Canada’s defining moments of the 2012 Olympics. Determined to erase the disappointment of previous Games, Hayden, the oldest swimmer in the field by over three years, swam his gutsiest race ever. Despite back spasms and ill-fitting goggles, he pulled off the best start of his career and never stopped pushing to finish in a time of 47.80 seconds. Canada had not even placed an athlete in the Olympic 100m freestyle final since Dick Pound 52 years earlier.

Five years prior, Hayden showed similar determination in fulfilling a last promise to his dying grandfather to medal at the 2007 FINA World Aquatics Championships in Melbourne. Sitting in sixth place at the halfway mark of the 100m freestyle final, Hayden drove through the pain of the last few strokes unwilling to give in. He touched the wall at the same instant as Italy’s Filippo Magnini to become co-world champion, both timed in 48.43 seconds. The result marked the first time two men had tied in a world championship race and also was Canada’s first gold medal at the worlds in 21 years.

During his career, Hayden also won three silver and one bronze medal at the world championships, eight Commonwealth Games medals including two gold, and 26 medals at the Pan Pacific Championships and World Cup events, including seven gold. He retired after the London Olympics as the Canadian record holder in the 50m, 100m, and 200m freestyle events, both short and long course.

*1998 BC Summer Games alumni

Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.