Different Strokes

July 2, 2008

The Aquatic Centre at UBC is one of two National Training Centres charged with returning Canada to swimming glory. The other—constructed more than 30 years ago in Montreal for the 1976 Olympics—is the nice one. The outdoor part of the UBC facility was built for the 1954 Empire Games; the indoor portion was added in 1978, when Battlestar Galactica’s influence on pool architecture was at its brief zenith.

It’s here, on weekday mornings from 6:15 to 8:15, and afternoons from 2:30 to 4:30, that you’ll find 24-year-old Brent Hayden, world 100-metre freestyle champion, training to bring home Canada’s first aquatic gold medal in 16 years. He’s the guy in the designated fast lane, moving with such velocity that he creates a wake that washes over the sociology profs, central-service clerks, and foreign-exchange students who share the pool with him. Anyone wanting to watch an elite athlete has plenty of opportunity this May afternoon—the bleachers, which seat several hundred, are empty.

These environs stand in sharp contrast to the Melbourne stadium where, last March, Hayden became the first Canadian ever to win gold in swimming’s marquee event. Thirteen thousand fans screamed for hometown hero Eamon Sullivan in a field that featured a who’s who of the swimming world. A video of the race has a pair of excitable Aussie commentators calling a contest so close that the top five swimmers all finished within one-tenth of a second. The only time they mention Hayden is when they declare him the winner.

In that moment, Hayden went from promising young swimmer from Mission, B.C., to bearer of the hopes of a medal-starved nation. Tom Johnson, Hayden’s coach since he spotted him at a swim club in Chilliwack in 2001, shrugs at the expectations. “In a lot of ways swimming is like downhill racing. Canada had so much early success with the Crazy Canucks that they expect dominating results every year. It just doesn’t work that way.” What Johnson, who’s also head coach of the Olympic swim team, doesn’t say is that the countries that have secured consistent high results—notably the USA and Australia—have ploughed millions into the sport. (The last Canadian even to swim in the Olympic finals was the now-66-year-old anti-doping crusader Dick Pound, who finished sixth in the 1960 Games.) The discrepancy couldn’t be clearer when Hayden heads to the public change rooms after his workout. It’s a safe bet that Ian Thorpe and Michael Phelps don’t shower off with a bus full of schoolkids on a field trip.

Hayden isn’t interested in lamentation—“Water is water,” he says—but concedes that a slightly better dry-land facility might be nice. (He has part of an old storage area equipped with secondhand weights.) “Brent doesn’t get any airs training here,” Johnson deadpans, as an aquacise class for seniors gets under way. “A great swimmer starts with a physical gift, which in Brent’s case is a perfect swimmer’s body, right down to bones that are as light as a bird’s. The key is to be able to take that gift, take instruction, and turn it into talent.”

Out of the pool, Hayden takes a relaxed approach to life. Contrary to the image of elite athletes as prized, pampered thoroughbreds, he lives like an undergrad. He bombs back and forth between the pool and his Kits apartment on a Honda scooter, plays Call of Duty 4 on his PC, and strolls the Stanley Park seawall, Canon 5D in hand. As for diet, the previous night he and his girlfriend had burgers at the Red Robin on Robson Street. Breakfast is coffee and cereal. “I’ll always try to have a protein shake at lunch,” he allows.

Come August, Hayden’s opponents would be wise not to mistake his easygoing demeanour for lack of focus. Despite a bulging disc in his back, he’s trained full-out all year. Thursday, August 14—the date of the 100-metre freestyle finals—is a day he’s been working toward since he informed his Grade 3 class that he was either going to be a robot maker or swim in the Olympics.

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