VANCOUVER — When three-time Olympian Brent Hayden left competitive swimming seven years ago, he was headed down a dark path.
The Canadian suffered from debilitating back spasms and was struggling with depression as he prepared for the London Olympics in 2012. There were times when he couldn’t walk for days in a row and his psychologist was coming to see him up to twice a week.
Yet during what he calls the worst year of his life, Hayden captured bronze in the 100-metre freestyle in London, marking Canada’s first-ever medal in the event.
Then he retired from competitive swimming.
“For me to win that medal, I think it meant more than most people realized,” Hayden said Wednesday.
“Without a solution to the back spasms and without an end to the spiral I was going through, I just knew I couldn’t be successful moving forward.”
For years, Hayden pursued other endeavours, including photography, swim clinics and launching a clothing line with his wife, Nadina Zarifeh.
Now, the 36-year-old from Mission, B.C., is jumping back in the pool. Hayden announced Wednesday he is coming out of retirement and has already been training in Vancouver for several weeks.
The decision comes after Hayden and Zarifeh spent the summer in Lebanon, where he got back into a pool on a regular basis and rediscovered his passion for swimming.
“I feel like I don’t have anything to prove this time around,” he said. “I’m really just doing this because I fell in love with the sport again and I wanted another chance to fall in love with the sport again in competition.”
Hayden has stayed in shape over the years and, over the summer, he felt his body was stronger than ever.
“I felt powerful, I felt fast. So I started testing it and I realized that my body wasn’t as old as I thought it was. I realized that if this was something I wanted to do, now was the time,” he said.
His decision to return came as a surprise to Swimming Canada’s high performance director, John Atkinson, who said he asked Hayden a lot of questions.
“But it didn’t take long when we met with Brent and talked about his goals, his ambitions, for us to say ‘This is a great thing,’ ” Atkinson said.
Hayden had previously been a key member of Canada’s national swim team, winning gold medals in both the 50- and 100-metre freestyle at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India, and taking first in the 100 at the world aquatic championships in Melbourne, Australia, in 2007.
He competed in both the 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Olympics, but back issues hampered his performance at the latter Games.
Still, Hayden’s former coach, Tom Johnson, had questions about his return.
“The reasons were sound. And they were good enough and interesting enough that, for me, it was a no-brainer to say of course,” said Johnson, head coach of Swimming Canada’s high performance centre in Vancouver.
For more than a month , Hayden has been back in the pool at the University of B.C., training with his old coach and a group of swimmers vying for spots on the Canadian national team.
His fitness was “quite surprising” from the start and he’s improved technically every week, Johnson said.
“He’s well on his way. He’s in good shape,” the coach said. “And really, when you look at it, age is only a number. He hasn’t really lost his step.”
Hayden still holds Canadian records in the 50, 100 and 200-metre freestyle events.
The 47.80 swim that won him a bronze medal at the London Olympics is the same time that earned Belgium’s Pieter Timmers a silver at the Rio Games in 2015.
For now, Hayden is focused on some closer milestones. He wants to qualify for the Olympic trials, then make the Canadian team and earn his spot in Tokyo.
“And then just swim as fast as I can and see what results happen,” he said. “I do believe that a medal is within the realm of possibility, though.”
This time around, Hayden is focusing his energy and training efforts on the 50-metre freestyle. He’ll still train for the 100-metre and 4×100-metre relay events, but believes the 50 is the most realistic race for his body at this stage.
“Power and strength are things that you can continue to develop more easily than a sprint endurance,” he said.
“I think I have a lot of room to surprise a lot of people if I just do what I know I’m capable of.”
Hayden also wants to take on a new role with the Canadian team, sharing his experience with the country’s next generation of swimmers.
“Before, I kind of wanted to lead by example, so I would be a role model on the team through my swims,” he said.
“This time, I want to take more of a leadership role in the room and really try to get our team going that way. … If I can help them overcome any obstacles or get them to the next level or just motivate them to get to the next level, I’m going to do everything I can to do that.”