Swimmer Brent Hayden: From awkward kid to Olympian

Watching him surge powerfully through the water in the 100m freestyle, you might imagine Brent Hayden has always been an athlete.  The truth is that as a child he struggled in just about every sport.

This Canadian Olympian is another great example of why kids need to be exposed to a variety of sports when they are small, and why parents need to keep an open mind when it comes to recognizing where their kids’ talents might be.

In a recent interview with Active for Life, Brent talked about his early love of swimming, his struggles in team sports and his inspiration to swim at the Olympics.

Q: What different sports did you play as a child?

I started playing soccer and baseball around age five, and later I played on the basketball team at my elementary school. I also played water polo for about three or four years from about age 12 to age 16. Around the same time I did karate for about five years and earned my first-degree black belt.

The truth is that I was awful at just about every sport I did, except for the water sports and karate. I was terrible at every sport outside of the pool.

When I briefly played basketball in grade seven, I only scored one basket all season. And it was an exhibition game against our own girls’ team. I mostly joined basketball because I was trying to get into the popular crowd at school, but in the end my lack of skills didn’t help me.

Q: What kept you in swimming?

I just loved to swim. I actually failed swimming lessons the first couple of times, but eventually I just found my place there.

For me, there was something about it being an individual sport. People weren’t relying on me getting the ball up the field or anything. I could just focus on my lane, and I think that’s what kept me in swimming.

Q: Do you have any memorable childhood experiences in sport? 

I remember during my first or second year with the Mission Marlins Swim Club, a coach gave me one of his medals to take home for a couple of weeks. I was probably only five or six years old.

It was really special for me because I hadn’t won a race or a medal yet. But it kind of felt like it was my medal. It sort of lit a fire under me. It made me want to go out and win one of my own.

Q: Do you remember when you first began to think about the Olympics?

The first time I ever thought about the Olympics was probably grade three. The teacher was getting kids to stand up in class and say what they wanted to be when they grew up.

I stood up and said, “I want to swim in the Olympics, and I want to be a robot maker.” I think I had just recently watched the movie Short Circuit or something, and I wanted my own Johnny Five!

Q: Of your swimming achievements, which one stands out most for you?

I guess it’s pretty simple just to say that winning the gold medal at the 2007 World Championships was the best one, but it really was. It was fulfilling a promise I made to my grandfather.

Just before I left to go to Australia for the World Championships, I got the call that my grandfather was dying. I went to see him, and I sat with him as he was going in and out consciousness.

I said, “Grandpa, I am going to Australia tomorrow, and I am going to win you a medal.”

He passed away five days later. So winning a gold medal for me was not just about winning a gold medal – it was about fulfilling the most difficult promise that I’ll ever make to anyone in my life.

Q: Do you have any advice for children who might dream of going to the Olympics?

Just enjoy every moment and never stop having fun. I always try to have fun with my sport because my best performances are when I’m enjoying it. I actually struggle when I’m not having fun.

Q: Do you have any advice for parents looking to get their kids involved in sports? 

Just open the doors for them. Just get them out there and get them to experience different sports. But at the same time, don’t pressure them into any one sport. If they like it, they like it. If they don’t, they don’t. Let them find what’s right for them.

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