Getting beaten up by riot police. Setting his alarm 4 hours too early before the biggest race of his life. Not being able to walk for 4 days just weeks out from his last Olympic Games. These are just a few of the challenges 3x Olympian, Olympic bronze medallist and 100m Freestyle World Champion Brent Hayden shares on today’s podcast.
00:47 Brent’s achievements
05:22 Focus on the things you can control
06:54 Back spasms leading up to the 2012 Olympics
14:55 Sport is unscripted
16:11 Beaten up and arrested by riot police after 2004 Olympics
28:54 It doesn’t need to look pretty
35:17 The best swimmers are the ones that are always open to change
37:19 Key pillars of sprinting
50:26 Astra Athletica
To know more about Brent Hayden, please visit:
Intro: Welcome to the Effortless Swimming Podcast. The show that helps swimmers and triathletes love the water, become a better swimmer and live a better life. Here’s your host, Brenton Ford.
Brenton Ford: Welcome to the Effortless Swimming Podcast. This is episode number 121, where my guest is three-time Olympian and Olympic bronze medalist Brent Hayden. Welcome to the call Brent.
Brent Hayden: Thanks for having me Brenton.
Brenton Ford: Apart from having a great name, you’ve had a lot of amazing achievements over the last couple years with your swimming. You’ve been in the swimming world for a very long time, and retired in 2012. What, for you, there’s a lot of achievements that you’ve done, for you, what’s probably the biggest one in terms of what are you most proud of?
Brent Hayden: I go back and forth between my bronze medal in London, and then my World Championship title in 2007. Both of those were, for me, big achievements. On paper, obviously, they look like big achievements, but they both have these underlying stories that made them bigger for myself personally, and so sometimes I don’t know which one’s the bigger achievement. But some days, the Olympic bronze medal is the biggest one, and then the next day I’m like, “You know what? I think my World Championship one was a little bit bigger.” I don’t have a better answer than that for you.
Brenton Ford: That’s what I think is really interesting, is the story behind the achievements that you see. You watch the Olympics and there’s a gold, there’s a silver, there’s a bronze, but so much work goes into getting to that place. For you, for the World Champs gold, what was the story behind that?
Brent Hayden: Well, the night before, I boarded the plane to fly down to Australia. My parents gave me a call and they told me I had to go to the hospital because my grandfather, he wasn’t doing so well, and so I went to the hospital and he was in a hospice. They knew that he was not going to last much longer, and I found out that night that he was probably going to die during my trip down to Australia. That night, while just sitting beside him, beside his bed, the last thing, and the only thing I actually got to tell him that night was that I was going to the World Championships tomorrow, and I’m going to win him a medal.
I got the email, actually my coach got an email from my dad, four or five days later, saying that he had passed away, so when I went out to swim, I was lane six, I’d never really done anything extraordinary in terms of individual performances. I’d had a lot of successes on the Canadian relay team, and I don’t think anybody was expecting me to get a medal, but I just felt like I had a little bit more reason to succeed than the other swimmers.
Ultimately, I think that’s why I succeeded and why I was able to dig deeper than I had ever dug before, was because of that promise I made to my grandfather. I actually felt like he was there in the stadium, and when I walked out on the pool deck, I actually told myself that he was in the stands somewhere.
Brenton Ford: That’s amazing. Did it affect you throughout the trip? Was it something you were constantly thinking about, and you were able to, I guess, draw strength from it? Or was there a time throughout that trip where it started to affect you in a negative way at all?
Brent Hayden: I don’t think it ever affected me in a negative way, because it was nothing but love. I knew that we didn’t really have much time with him before that as well, because I grandma had passed away years before, he was living on his own and his health had just been deteriorating very slowly ever since. It was like which year is it going to be? It wasn’t unexpected per se, around the time, but definitely in the moment, oh my god, it’s going to happen now, that was definitely unexpected.
I think when it happened, I was obviously very sad. I went into the locker room by myself and just cried it all out. The only thing was going to the pool that day, riding the bus, that was the most nervous I had ever felt out of any competition, including my London Olympics, where I literally just felt like my heart was just going to pound right through my chest, and possibly stop. I was feeling so scared, but I just get telling myself that I’m feeling this way because what I’m about to do is incredibly important. I think that in the end, that ended up helping lift me up to a level that I’d never been able to get to before. Again, it’s all out of love.
Brenton Ford: I remember my coach telling me that if you’ve got nerves, that’s a good thing. It means that this race means something to you. It sounds like having your heart pounding that hard on the bus on the way to the pool, that you knew how much it meant to you. Talk me through that race. How did it go down, and how did you pace it? What was like behind the blocks? Was it completely different than anything you have experienced before in terms of how you felt before the race?
Brent Hayden: Yeah. I totally never felt that way before, and I don’t think I’d ever felt that way again. Usually when I’m behind the blocks, I’m running through the race visually, I’m thinking about my start, my turns, my breakouts, my breath. I’m thinking about okay, well if I hit the wall where my body just screams stop, what am I going to tell myself to keep going? I’m thinking about everything I can, except for the result, because I’d really try to focus on the things that I can control, so the things that I’m doing in my own lane.
However, in this moment, I was only thinking about my grandpa, and I was just thinking about the reason why I had to succeed, just remembering the promise that I’d made to him. I didn’t even think about my starts, I didn’t think about my turn, I didn’t think about anything before the race, except for that promise, and just that he is somewhere in the stands right now, watching me. I just wanted to make him proud.
Brenton Ford: That’s awesome. Then the 2012 Olympics, what was the story leading up to that?
Brent Hayden: I think this is also one of the reasons why I chose to retire as well. From 2008 onwards, beginning at the 2008 Canadian trials, I started to experience crazy, chronic back spasms. At the 2008 trials, I qualified for the team and then immediately, getting out of the pool for my warm-down, I suffered a back spasm and had to spend the night in the hospital. My back was so contorted they actually couldn’t even take an X-ray of my back because they couldn’t get a clear image. I ended up not being able to compete in the 50 free, so that’s actually the reason why I didn’t swim that at the Beijing games.
These spasms had been hurting my career throughout, although if you look at my results, you wouldn’t really be able to tell because apart from the 2008 games, but my failure at those games had nothing to do with my back. That was all on me. But doing Commonwealth champion in 2010, double champion rather, and [inaudible 00:08:13] records 2011 silver medal, 2009 Canadian record with a fourth place finish at the World Champs, but then 2012, I’d always just seemed to be able to get through it and make it work, but for four days, only two weeks before those games, I had another back spasm while at staging camp, and I couldn’t walk for those four days because my back was just so spazzed up, so seized up, that just trying to get out of the bed to go brush my teeth was virtually an impossible task.
For four days I’m just thinking to myself, am I ever going to get to compete? We’re so close to the games. Usually when these happen, I have at least a couple of months, it’s almost like lots of time in a way, but now we’re just a couple of weeks out. Even if I’m walking again, am I going to be well enough to actually compete at the Olympics for a medal, or am I just going to basically be showing up and swim safe so I don’t have a back spasm.
I actually started thinking that I might actually just retire before the games, just take myself out of the equation, because I’d already failed really bad at two Olympics. I don’t think I would have been able to handle going through a third one and just bombing again, but my coach just looked at me one day and just said, he just looks at me, I actually looked at him and he just goes, “Well, what’s wrong with you right now?” I said, “I want to retire before the games.” H just gives me that look and he goes, “Well why don’t you just retire then?” The thought of that actually just made me so angry, and I actually ended up blowing up at coach, which I never do. Then two days after that, I was back in water, swimming as if nothing had ever gone wrong, and I know that in that moment, my coach was doing what good coaches do. They say exactly what they need to say in order to get exactly what they need out of you.
Leading up into the games now, I’m thinking about myself that I wasn’t able to walk for four days only two weeks before, my body has been feeling like it’s broken. Actually, the day of the final, my rib was actually out of place, just because of all the racing I’d already been doing, still remnants from that back spasm just tweaked a little muscle between the rib and pulled that out of place, so I felt like my rib was going to punch through my skin. I just felt like I had every reason why I shouldn’t have succeeded in London, but I had every reason why I should succeed in Beijing and I didn’t do it.
Going into the London games having all these reasons why you shouldn’t succeed, and ultimately that was when I did, I don’t know if any other color of medal could have actually been any better for me. For me, that bronze medal really does feel like gold, because I feel like I just had overcome this huge challenge than is greater than the results actually show.
Brenton Ford: Yeah, absolutely. With the back spasms, was that something that continues today? Did you ever get to the root of it?
Brent Hayden: Yeah, I still suffer from them today, but not nearly as much because I’m not pushing my body to the limits nearly as much as I once was, obviously. I have had a couple of them where I was unable to walk for four days, and I’m reliving those days in Italy all over again, but what I’ve been able to do is, in the gym, just taking the time to slowly build up my back because I don’t have a competition I’m getting ready for, so I don’t have a deadline on when I need to be strong and healthy. I’ve got the rest of my life ahead of me, so I’ve just been taking my time and just slowly building up my strength. Because I used to never be able to do any lower back exercises at all. They were completely off my training regimen, because any time I did anything with my lower back, spasms.
As we were doing that, the downside was that my lower body strength was also getting weaker and weaker and weaker, so my legs by the time I got to London, they’re were real chicken legs. Well I don’t really want to have chicken legs for the rest of my life, and I also don’t have massage and physio and chiro at my disposal anymore, so I’ve got to make sure that I get my body stronger. I’m doing deadlifts now, which eight years ago, or sorry, even six years ago, would never have even though I would have been able to do. I’m not going heavy, but just the fact that I’m doing them has been a big improvement.
Brenton Ford: Yeah. Because then that puts a lot of strain on your lower back I think, because I’ve got nothing like you’ve got, but just had a bad lower back for a couple of years, and just even the thought of deadlifts, I’d really have to start light with that. The fact that you’re doing them must mean you’ve got into a pretty good place with your back strength.
I think every Aussie listening to this would remember the 100 free from the London games was when the hope of Australia was riding on James Magnussen’s shoulders as he went so fast in the Olympic trials. I don’t know if he broke the world record or he was just off it, but he was at least half a second ahead of pretty much anyone in the world that year, and then he got pipped out by Nathan Adrian. Yeah, then you were not too far behind. I think all of Australia was watching that 100 meter freestyle final.
Brent Hayden: Yeah, well I definitely think I was surprised myself as well, [inaudible 00:13:57] with the rest of the world. You could watch that race over and over and over again, and just see how close that was. It was 1/100th, and then there was me, I think I was two or 4/100ths ahead of fourth place as well. There was a bit more of a gap between me and James, but it’s just crazy how just the slightest, littlest thing can just make you a hero, or people [inaudible 00:14:22], “Well what happened?”
In the end, I still think that a silver medal is still an incredible achievement. Who could ever think that when they’re a kid, they would be looking up in their future and think wow, one day I’m going to be an Olympic silver medalist, and that’s going to let people down.
Brenton Ford: That’s right. Exactly right.
Brent Hayden: [inaudible 00:14:47], it’s one 100th, it can put you on one side of the coin or the other.
Brenton Ford: Then it spiraled from there, whereas the 4×1 men’s relay, just I don’t even know if they got a medal. They did not race well at that Olympics, and then there was a whole review with Australia swimming. It was just like yeah, it wasn’t a great Olympics for the Aussies, and a lot of it started from there. As you said, it’s just such a minor thing, but it can make such a difference, when if you look at it in the grand scheme of things, it’s still an amazing swim, it’s just everyone had built it up so much in their minds. Yeah, I felt bad for him, I just felt so bad, and the same with Kate Campbell at the 2016 games. Just so much pressure, and unfortunately she wasn’t able to pull it off. But that’s sport. It can feel like life and death at times, but if you can take that step back, you go, “Okay, well life’s not that bad.”
Brent Hayden: Oh yeah. [inaudible 00:15:50] you’re like that is sport. Sport is unscripted. If sport was scripted, it just wouldn’t be sport, so we got to go with it, not matter whether it’s good or it’s bad.
Brenton Ford: Yeah, exactly right. That’s what makes it exciting.
Brent Hayden: Yeah.
Brenton Ford: I was looking up some things before we jumped on this call. I read about you, after 2004 Olympic games in Athens, about the riot police. Do you want to go into that at all? It’s just that I thought that was pretty funny.
Brent Hayden: Yeah, no problem. I think performance aside, I probably had the worst Olympic experience out of any athlete at those games. Because one, as I said, I mentioned earlier, I failed at my two previous Olympics. I failed really bad at the Athens Olympics because something as stupid as my alarm clock wasn’t set properly, so it went off at 3:30 in the morning. I got up thinking it was 7:00, I was feeling all Olympic that day, got to the cafeteria, just looked at the janitor and realized there’s nobody else here, something’s wrong. Looked at my phone, I’m like oh my god, it’s 3:30 in the morning, and I just totally ruined my Olympics. Those were the big days I was racing, and I couldn’t get my head back around then.
Totally botched the relay and my individual performances, everything, and so after we were done, it was the night before the closing ceremonies, just out with a bunch of other athletes, swimmers from other counties as well as other sports, we were just all out having a good time. I think in my mind, I’m trying to think okay, I’m just going to try to forget how bad my swimming was, and I’m just going to try and have a little bit of fun. When I probably should have gone back to the village some time after midnight, I was like, “Oh well, we’ll just go to one more place.” We’re walking down the street, and we just see this whole line of riot police blocking the end of the street. I’m thinking okay, well that’s not a good sign. They all that their shields on, their helmets, they’ve got their batons. We turned around, we started looking at each other like okay, well where do we go now?
Next thing you know, everybody that was just walking round the street, people that looked like they had just come from the club or the bar, they just started pulling dumpsters into the streets and picking up whatever rocks and bottles they were finding, and just throwing them down the street at the cops. Right away, you could just hear the rubber bullets starting to fire, and the tear gas starting to fire. The line that was standing shoulder-to-shoulder suddenly started running towards us, so me and the other athletes, we just ran back into the bar that we had just come from, just to get out of the street, because I didn’t want to get hit by a rubber bullet.
While I’m standing there thinking I’m safe, I just see this hand reached over my shoulder, grabbed me by the shirt, and yanks me out into the street. I got thrown face down in the street, and beaten with their Billy clubs, and again, kicked with their steel-toed boots. It lasted for a few minutes.
While I’m on the street, I’m covering my head with my arms, and with one arm, I reach into my pocket and I pull my accreditation, because I had it attached to my belt loop because you don’t want to lose that thing, and they ended up just ripping it off and just tossing it aside. One of the other athletes had to pick it up later. I still have it. It’s all completely mangled. It’s like they crumpled it up and threw it away, and they just continued to beat me even through they knew I was an athlete.
Eventually they stopped, I just threw my hands behind my back, I was like, “Just handcuff me, just don’t hit me anymore. I don’t care.” They took me down the street, threw me head-first into the corner of the building, and they just kept arresting more people and bringing them over, and just throwing them in the pile on top of me. Every time I tried to ask, “Okay, well what happened here? Why did you guys actually do this?” Pretty much I had tears in my eyes too, and they would just scream at me in Greek. A couple of times, they would threaten me by holding up a can of pepper spray in my face, they all threatening to spray, me.
Then eventually they just released me, and the only explantation from the one guy that I remember that was able to speak English was the reason why they arrested me was because I was the tallest one in the group and I was wearing a dark shirt. Basically I was the easiest target that they could see. [crosstalk 00:20:32] did, maybe running away in their mind, might have been like he must have done something. It was like, well no, I just don’t want to get hit by a rubber bullet. I’m not going to stand here.
When I got home, I didn’t want to talk about it, I didn’t want to let that get out because I was already dealing with a lot of embarrassment, a lot of negative things were being said about me in the press already, just because if you look at the relay, my leg of the relay is really what cost us the medal. While I was trying to deal with that, the whole riot incident ended up getting out as well, and then I had to relive that and start doing all these interviews about that. Then one reporter ended up getting the whole story wrong, and then said it happened the night before the relay, and so not me waking up early because of my alarm clock, now suddenly the reason why I did poorly on the relay was because I decided to go out partying the night before, and forget the fact that I got beat up by riot police.
Brenton Ford: Oh my god.
Brent Hayden: [crosstalk 00:21:37] race with a half broke or a semi-broken arm, because I couldn’t move my arm for almost a month after that, because of the good crack I took on the elbow while I was protecting my head.
Brenton Ford: You missed the World Short Course Champs because of it as well, is that right? Yeah.
Brent Hayden: Yeah.
Brenton Ford: Wow. Well it makes for a good story now though, looking at probably the only positive out of it.
Brent Hayden: I’m totally over it now, but at the time I actually was considering quitting swimming because I’d dreamed of going to the Olympics my entire life, and then I actually git there, Athens of all places too, it’s the birthplace of the Olympics, so it was like a dream come true. Then I sucked in the pool, and then I got beat up by riot police, I was like why do I even want to do this anymore? This is awful. But thank God I had a great coach, my coach Tom Johnson, who he really stuck by me and helped me worked through it. I was working with a sports psychologist, talking with my family and my parents all the time, or my friends, anybody who was willing to listen.
I had to let it out of the bottle so to speak, and eventually I just came to realize that that was a really crappy chapter of a much bigger book that I still have yet to write. Within that year, we came back to the World Champs in Montreal, almost a home crowd. When I say almost, it’s just I’m from Vancouver, so about as home crowd for World Championships as I can get. Two silver medals on relays, just less than a year after I thought I was going to quit.
Brenton Ford: It seems like it happens so often, the point where you’re almost ready to throw it all in, around that next corner is where your biggest success lies, or that next real high or reward of that hard work that you’ve put in. It sounds like that was the case in Montreal.
You were the only swimmer in the 2009 World Champs not to wear a super suit in the 100 free final.
Brent Hayden: Yeah. Probably not the best decision.
Brenton Ford: I was wondering. For those that don’t know, I guess give them a little bit of background on what the 2009 World Champs were like with the super suits and so on. But what was the decision behind that?
Brent Hayden: Well that was a decision that my coach and I made, but ultimately it came down to contract obligations. They got in the way of my performance. I had a [inaudible 00:24:15] contracts, and Swimming Canada had some agreements of what the swimmers would wear as well, so it basically came down to other people were telling me that I wasn’t allowed to wear the same suit as the rest of the swimmers. Unfortunately that was the reason why I actually wanted to wear and the suit, and I still get angry about it, even though I tried to just accept the fact that it is what it is. But I do get angry that I didn’t just not listen to them and just go rogue a little bit, just so I could wear that suit, because I believe in that performance I would have beaten César. I think I would have beaten the current world record holder right now.
Sure, it would have been in a body suit, but I never broke an individual world record, and that one would have been sweet. César still has it too, and I don’t think he’s complaining that it was in a body suit.
Brenton Ford: No. Good chance that could stand for a very long time. Although the way Caeleb Dressel’s swimming, it may be not. But because you went 47:2 and got fourth, and what’s the world record? 46:97?
Brent Hayden: Yeah.
Brenton Ford: Yeah. Because that’s a really quick swim without the super suit. Because it was something like 36 of 37 world records got broken at that meet, or something crazy. The whole record books just got wiped with people in those suits.
Brent Hayden: Yeah. It was absolutely ridiculous.people were surprised when a world record didn’t get broken.
Brenton Ford: Yeah.
Brent Hayden: It was like, “What? Nobody broke a world record in that race? Really?”
Brenton Ford: Yeah. What’s going wrong? But now the good thing is that people are starting to break those records again, well men with just the jammers and the women with the knee-length suits, which is great. I think swimming’s had to evolve to get past, or to be able to break those world records again, which has been really good to see. It’s happening in a lot of events.
Brent Hayden: Yeah. I’ve really enjoyed watching those world records get broken, but I think it just comes down to the fact that one, I think there’s a belief now that those records aren’t invincible anymore. After the first few finally got broken, all of a sudden, everybody started to believe in themselves and realize that that is possible. Then also too, just the advancements and just sports nutrition and recovery as well, and people just making tweaks to the techniques. I remember I grew up in high elbow freestyle days, and now they seem to be doing more open arm because they can get a higher turnover. It’s interesting these little tweaks that we can still do, that we can still actually figure how we can actually get faster without having to rely on technology to do it.
Brenton Ford: Yeah. It’s been really good to see. As you said, they’re teaching some very different things in terms of technique, like even with the sprinters, I think Dressel, he’s pretty much like a straight arm freestyler, and [inaudible 00:27:30] was the same back in the day. Then with breast stroke you’ve got Adam Peaty who’s got this super fast rating, Rebecca Soni who’s quite unique compared to some of the other breaststrokers. You’re seeing some of the technique, they’re not teaching just one style anymore, which is really good. It’s just, I guess, adapting to whoever the person is, depending on their height, their strength, or their strengths in the stroke. Yeah, it’s really exciting.
Brent Hayden: [inaudible 00:27:58]. There’s no cookie cutter technique anymore that’s going to work for everybody. Everybody’s going to have to do something that’s going to work just a little bit better for their body than it would have worked for somebody else. I think the one thing that’s really been great is that you’ve been seeing a bit of a renaissance among the coaches, as they’ve started to realize that there’s got to be more than one technique across swimmers. You used to walk to a club, and on the deck of a club and you’d see everybody would be doing the exact same free stroke, the exact same breast stroke, or butterfly or back stroke, and now you’re seeing a bunch of different styles on the one team, as swimmers are also more comfortable being able to listen to their own body’s analytics. Because there’s no better feedback than the feeling of water against your one skin. I think that’s just been really awesome to see.
Brenton Ford: Yeah. Look at even the 1500, look at Sun Yang compared to Paltrinieri, and there couldn’t be two more different types of freestyle there, yet they’re both as quick as one another. I’ve looked at Gregorio’s stroke in slow motion quite a bit, just to understand what he’s doing in each part of the stroke, and it doesn’t fit the typical box of what you’d expect with freestyle. It’s very unique and it’s not pretty, it’s not a beautiful stroke, but boy its quick.
Brent Hayden: Yeah, I know. That’s the thing, it doesn’t need to look pretty. The only think that people care about is what the clock says at the end of the race. Nobody cares what you look like while you were doing it.
Brenton Ford: Exactly right, yeah. Nob asks that question at the end and goes, “How did you look?” It’s like no, “What was your time?”
Brent Hayden: It’s not diving, it’s not figure skating, it’s not synchro swimming, it’s not a judged sport. Its not like you went sub 48 for a 50 freestyle, but point deductions because you lifted your head up too high in the breath or whatever. Not enough dolphin kicks underwater off the wall.
Brenton Ford: Yeah, completely true. I’ve started open water swimming a couple of years back, and I come from a pool background, and it was pretty much when I allowed myself to get a little bit scrappy and messy with the stroke that my times in the open water started to really improve, because if there’s any sort of chop in the water and you’re trying to swim with a traditional sort of freestyle stroke, the longest, smoothest stroke, it doesn’t work as well as being a bit more aggressive on the entry and with the recovery, and faster stroke rates. It’s just knowing when and how to make those adaptations depending on what event you’re doing.
Brent Hayden: Yeah, I even look back on my London race, and just seeing how strokes have evolved since then, I look at it and go, “You know what? I wish maybe I just stook around a little bit longer, because I would have liked to have tried opening up my arms a little bit.” I even look at that race and go, “My head position was actually up a little bit too high.” [inaudible 00:31:07] that medal, I still know that I still had room for improvement in terms of technique. It would have been cool to stick around a little bit more and play around with my stroke a little bit.
Brenton Ford: Yeah. It’s good to look back at that in hindsight isn’t it? I tell this story all the time, but with underwater filming, when I was about 13, 14, we had a guy come in, in a scuba suit, he’d sit on the bottom of the pool with this big camera in a waterproof case, and he’d just move the camera along as we swam past. Then we’d look at it on this grainy TV, and it was about 30 seconds of feedback. Didn’t really know what we were looking for, or we had no comparison video to any good swimmers, and so I just didn’t get any value from it. But now I run a lot of clinics and we do that underwater filming, and the Go Pro, iPad, and you are set. That is all you need to be able to analyze your stroke.
Brent Hayden: Well we run our own swim camps up here, and we actually have a Swim Pro package, Swim Pro from Australia, we actually bought one from those guys. We bring it out to our swim camps every once in a while, and even Swim BC, BC being British Columbia, when they bring me out to their camps, if they can’t get their video guy, they ask me to bring my video equipment as well.
It is so amazing, the feedback now, that you can get with those, or even just put them up on a projector, so as the swimmers swim in on a 15 second delay or a 30 second delay, after they swim, they can turn around and watch their technique right there, in almost real time. It’s actually incredible.
Brenton Ford: Yeah. It’s so much easier to do these days. I like that setup with the delay, because I went to an endless pool, what do they call it? Anyway, they got the cameras set up there, not too far from Melbourne, at an endless pool there, and they had a 30 second delay on. I was looking at my stroke, and then I was going okay, I need to go a little bit deeper with this hand, I need to do this. It took me a while to actually make the changes, but I had to make it feel really different than what I expected, to make those changes. If you try and change a little bit, normally nothing happens, so having that almost instant visual feedback can really save you two years of trying to make those changes.
Brent Hayden: It’s totally crazy because what you think you might change in your head, if it feels good or feels normal, then chances are you actually didn’t change anything. One of the things I ask my swimmers that I’m working with is, “Do you feel weird?” If they say, “No,” I’m like, “Well then you didn’t change anything.” I do things that will make them feel totally weird because when you make those changes, because swimming is one of those sports where you’re not looking at your own body, you can’t see what you’re doing, so you have to rely on how it feels and proprioception. Finally when they feel weird, then it’s like, “Okay. Well now you changed something.”
It’s so crazy how small of a change they’ve actually made, and it feels like they just changed their complete stroke, even if they just entered the water more in front of their shoulder as opposed to outside their shoulder. [crosstalk 00:34:28].
Brenton Ford: [crosstalk 00:34:28]. See that all the time in clinics, and sometimes it really takes a bit of pushing or encouragement to get them to be willing to do that as well. It’s like they’re stuck within what they’re comfortable doing, so to be able to get them to be comfortable trying to make those changes, and say, “It’s okay to feel weird. You’re probably going to feel a little bit awkward,” it’s like you’ve really just got to go, “Okay,” or what I say to them sometimes is, “Let’s just over-exaggerate this thing that we’re working on. If we need to bring it back a bit closer to where it was, we can, but to start with, let’s over-exaggerate it and just see where it ends up.” Just giving them permission to do that, they sometimes then can be okay with having it feel a little weird.
Brent Hayden: Yeah. I actually think that the best swimmers are the ones that are always open to change. Even if you’re a world champion or Olympic champion, you’re not sitting there thinking that okay, well this technique won today, it’s definitely going to win again in four years from now or two years from now. What won today might not win in four years.
When I won the World Championships, it was like a 48:45 or something like that, in a body suit. 48:4 in a body suit. I went a 47:8 in a jammer, and I still only got third. Obviously, even though I’d won at the 2007 World Championships, I didn’t think that was going to be enough to win later on down the road. Again, failed at Beijing for a completely different reason, but every other time, yeah definitely, I was like no, it’s not going to carry me through. It’s only good enough for today and I’ve got to look, got to figure out what I can do that’s going to make me better tomorrow.
Brenton Ford: Yeah. It’s interesting to see what going to happen in the next four, eight, 12 years, with the upcoming swimmers, I think particularly for breaststroke, just because it’s probably one of the more obvious changes in stroke, with Adam Peaty and Rebecca Soni. They’re fairly different than what you would traditionally have as the older breaststroke strokes. I think you’ll see a lot of swimmers come through with that sort of style now. Then maybe 15, 20 years down the track, we’ll se someone with a really long breaststroke, and then it might start to shift. It’s like fashion. Everyone’s wearing 80s, 90s fashion, and then it all goes in this cycle.
Brent Hayden: Yeah. I remember when I was a kid, they always said, on the recovery, you’ve got to have your palms up. The whole scoop the ice cream, eat the ice cream thing. Then later on, it was no, you’ve got to have your palms down because why would you turn your wrists up. Now you’re looking at [Peter 00:37:09] like wait, he’s got his palms up. What is it? I don’t even know. I was never a breaststroker, so maybe somebody else can enlighten me, but I never understood that.
Brenton Ford: If you were coaching today, what sort of things would you have your swimmers do? If they were sprinters, what do you see as being the key pillars of being able to sprint? I guess somewhats of the somewhat of technique aside, what are some of those key components that you feel like made you a really good sprinter?
Brent Hayden: Going from the 2008 games, up until 2012, my average distances for practice were actually getting shorter every single year. Before, 5K was short, 6500 was very normal. By the time I got to the London games, I was averaging about 3500 meters per workout, but what I was doing though was increasing the intensity, because if you’re going to swim fast, your muscles have to know how to actually go fast. I did a lot of really simple sets of just 25 pushes, on 45 seconds or a minute, depending on how many I’m doing. What I would try to do is I would try to start off trying to get it under 11 seconds flat. Then by the end of it, I’m trying to keep it still under 11 seconds flat, and sometimes, actually quite often, I would actually be able to go even faster. I’d be going 10:7s, 10:6s from a push.
One, I think there’s some times where you do your stretch cord stuff like this, to help, but there are things about your technique and how the water’s flowing over your body, that you can only really feel at high speeds. I think if I was coaching, first technique, 100%, is probably the most important, but then after that, you’ve got to be able to do exactly that technique incredibly fast, and then do the exact same technique incredibly slow.
We were at this training camp in Hawaii, and my coach, I didn’t know he was doing this, but he had me going through exactly this sprint set. He took some slow-motion video of me, and some photos while I was sprinting from head on, and then he had me just doing my between set easy swim, did the same thing. Then while I was swimming the cool-down, he did the exact same thing. Now sometimes when he does presentations, he actually puts these videos in there and shows that no matter what speed Brent was going, he only ever had one technique.
Brenton Ford: I like that.
Brent Hayden: Yeah, that’s actually a little trick that I actually tell younger swimmers, that when they actually get to cool-down, do that cool-down with the best technique that you actually can, because your muscle memory is going to remember the very last thing you did in the pool.
Brenton Ford: Yeah. What sort of drills, or how much drilling did you do, particularly in the last eight years of your career? It’s a big thing with junior swimmers, but how much drills, technique work were you doing in those three and a half, 4K sets?
Brent Hayden: Mostly my drills were just catch-up drill and single arm. I think those are probably the two easiest ones, and they’re great because you get to isolate the arms that you’re thinking about, so you don’t have to think about both your arms and your body roll and everything at the same time. You get to isolate things as well. But I also would always do this, basically a cheating catch-up. Whenever my coach said I could pick our own drill, I would always do a cheat catch-up, and then of course, that always upset my teammates because they all [inaudible 00:40:51], “That’s a real catch-up. You’re going too fast.”
I would start my pull just a little bit early. For me, it helped me with my timing and my rhythm, and it was just enough delay to work on my catch before I come back to center, because you always end up sinking a little bit there. I’m working on this catch-up drill while still being able to ride up a little bit higher in the water by just picking up my speed a little bit.
What I do when I’m teaching now, is I’ll go from full catch-up in 11 positions. I don’t like catch-up where your hands come into your streamline, because you never really enter directly in your centerline anyways, so put your hands out, and your shoulder width apart because that’s generally where you want to enter. Then you go from full catch-up to three-quarter catch-up, which is like the cheat catch-up, and then I go into half catch-up, and [inaudible 00:41:50] three quarters through the recovery and half through the recovery. The half catch-up is actually just full stroke freestyle, but by saying it like it’s a drill, even though the swimmers are swimming, they’re thinking about it like it’s a drill, so they’re thinking about the timing of that. Then I look down and go, “Okay, well how did that feel?” They look at me and go, “Well I felt like I was just swimming,” I’m like, “Exactly.”
Brenton Ford: Yeah, that’s good. I work with a lot of adults, and getting the timing of the stroke right is quite, well I wouldn’t say one of the most challenging things, but it’s something that I see a lot of, that once they get it, if they’re not currently having that timing right, pretty much where if you look at if from underwater, one hand is entering, and the other arm’s roughly underneath the shoulder, if we’re just watching the swim there. For the swimmers that aren’t doing that, when they do get to that right timing, just everything seems to connect and sync up, whereas before it’s like they’re on this treadmill that they can’t get off. There’s not relaxation in the stroke at all.
Brent Hayden: Yeah. I think sometimes that comes from they’re starting the catch too early, because they’re trying to get they’re stroke right [inaudible 00:42:59], and so they start to pull too early. The thing is, you’re always going to have one hand in front of your head before you start to pull back. I think for working on timing, the half catch-up is a good place to start, because your other arm, your arm in the recovery has to be at least at your shoulder, or just [inaudible 00:43:20] past your head. At the earliest possible, that’s when you’re going to start your catch, because if you pull before that, then you’re going to pull and then both of your arms are going to end up behind your head. Your arm’s not going to be quite at halfway yet and your other arm that you’re pulling is already going to be past your shoulders as well. Then you’ve got nothing to counterbalance the weight of your giant legs that are trailing out behind you, and [inaudible 00:43:42] you sink.
Brenton Ford: I love showing that, when we record people we often get the birds-eye view, so looking down. I love showing that shot for the people that are pulling through too soon. You see both arms behind the head, and it’s quite a funny shot to see because you go Jesus, how am I actually moving here? What’s going on? It helps them make that connection.
Brent Hayden: [crosstalk 00:44:04] go faster if you slow down your catch. Just leave your hand and let it ride up near the surface. Once your arm passes your head, then you can start your catch. You’ll find that your balance in the water, and your center line and everything, it’s just going to flow so much smoother.
Brenton Ford: What about gym work? How often were you in the gym?
Brent Hayden: We did that twice a week, for an hour to an hour and a half. But I admit, I’ve learned a lot more about the gym after I retired, because when I was on the team, training, I didn’t really have to know much, I would just do exactly what I was told to do.
Brenton Ford: Yeah.
Brent Hayden: I think if I went back and looked at how I was doing certain techniques, it probably wouldn’t have looked very good at all. Shrugging the shoulders when you’re doing bicep curls, that you’re just thinking about lifting the bar up, you’re not really focusing on the tension in the biceps. Just simple things like that.
Brenton Ford: Yeah. I have been the same when I was swimming. I think I wasn’t even really thinking too much about technique, because I didn’t know what to think about, and even strength work, you’d just be looking at yourself in the mirror in the gym, and that’s about it. Just doing the exercises. But looking at it from more of a coaching perspective, there’s all these little details and nuances that you want to make sure that your swimmers are doing, and there’s a lot that goes into it, but it’s a very different, often mindset that a coach and a swimmer has. Sometimes it can be good for the swimmer just to turn up, do their thing, and do it as best as possible. If you give them more detail than they actually need, it can be unnecessary, but there’s so much that goes into it, that I think when I was an athlete, I didn’t really have any concept of all of that detail that can go into swimming and strength, and all the other things surrounding swimming.
Brent Hayden: Yeah, for sure. I think, definitely for me at some points, I guess in swimming, our performance is measurable. We have to go a certain time, that’s how we base our performance. When we’re in the gym, we do that with the weights like we’re thinking more about how heavy can I make this and still be able to, say on a bench press, how heavy can I get the bar up? Well yeah, I could do two plates and up to another 15 pounds up per side, but that doesn’t mean that I was lifting it well. I could literally go down to one plate a side, do it with perfect technique, and almost be just as challenging, if I’m doing [inaudible 00:46:53] technique and I’m working on my timing, just thinking more about time under pressure and just doing everything perfect.
I think a lot of swimmers, our heads are too much in the actual weights. Our minds should be more in the muscles. The weights are just there to challenge the muscles, so add the weight that you need to challenge the muscle, not the weight that you want to be able to push. That’ll totally change the way that you work out, and I think when I started doing that on my own, I noticed way faster improvements. I still haven’t been able to get up to what I actually benched at my max, but I feel that my technique doing it has been so much better that if I had actually done it with the same bad technique that I’d done it back then, I’d probably be able to bench more. But honestly, that’s not the way to do it, and there is always the risk of injuring yourself as well.
Brenton Ford: Yeah, exactly right. What about kicking? Was there much focus on having a strong kick, being a sprinter, when you were training? Or was a lot of your focus on primarily the catch, what happens out in front?
Brent Hayden: No, there was a lot of focus on kicking. We would do whole practices that are just focused on kicking. The 400 kick for time was a staple measurement set that my [inaudible 00:48:15] would do at least a few times a season. I was never really a good kicker. I’ve got size 13 feet, yeah, they’re big, but I have the most inflexible ankles as well, and I don’t have hyper-flexible knees. When I do dolphin kick, I don’t get that big, hyperextension that you see on a lot of swimmers, and that huge awesome extra whip on their kick. My legs are very, other than being long and big feet, they work very average.
The fastest kicker on our team was actually Brian Johns. Now Brian, he was actually the world record holder for the 400 IM short course back in the mid 2000s I believe. He went a 4:02. He had size nine feet, just tiny, but this guy could kick like no other person that I’d ever seen in the world, because he just had the most flexible ankles, not to mention he was of course in shape. But it was only just so funny that the guy with the smallest feet was the fastest kicker that I know.
Brenton Ford: I remember seeing this video of, who was it? I can’t remember who the coach was. It might have been something like Laurie Lawrence, and he was coaching Ian Thorpe. There was this video, and this guy comes up to him, up to Ian Thorpe’s coach, this is back before he was Ian Thorpe, this is when he was probably 14 not 15, and this guy comes up to him and Laurie tells him how amazing this Ian Thorpe guy is. He’s going to be the next superstar. The guy goes, “He must have big feet.” He rips into this guy, he’s just like, “It’s got nothing to do with it mate.” It’s just what you were saying there, it’s like yes, beg feet can help to a certain extent, but yeah, if you’re the fastest kicker in the group and you’ve got size nine, then you don’t want to rely on that as an excuse.
Brent Hayden: Yeah. [inaudible 00:50:11], you see swimmers all the time rocking back on their ankles. They’re trying to get just a little extra ankle flexibility. That’s way more important than the size of your feet for sure.
Brenton Ford: Now you’ve started a clothing brand that supports Olympic athletes.
Brent Hayden: Yeah.
Brenton Ford: How long has that been going for, and what was your why behind created the Astra Athletica?
Brent Hayden: Well we started developing this in 2013, but we actually only launched the apparel just a couple of months ago. It was learning a lot of things about being an entrepreneur, and I had to learn a lot of new skills, and had to teach myself just a lot of things on the back, being a business owner, that it just took time to really try to learn everything to a point where it felt like we could actually launch this thing.
But the idea came because after the Olympics, I was doing a lot of motivational speaking, and I started almost getting depressed at that, because as soon as I left the room, that meant that I was no longer going to be onstage, trying to spread the message that it doesn’t matter how good or how bad you are at something, that everybody has greatness inside them. I failed swimming lessons. That’s my shtick. I went from failing swimming lessons to becoming one of the fastest swimmers in the world. I was world champion.
I wanted to create a brand that just inspired people to just keep chasing their dreams and just never giving up, and trying to, we say rise through challenge. Because I feel like my entire career lived on that. Nothing in my career came easy. But at the same time, I needed something that I could use to actually help other Olympic athletes chase their dreams, because I came from a family that was not wealthy, come from a small town, my dad was a full-time paramedic, my mom ran a small, home-based business. My dad and my mom were driving me over 900 kilometers a week just to make sure that I could actually get to swim practice, because the only team that I could train with was the next town over. 45 kilometers away. Doing that 10 times a week.
Brenton Ford: Wow.
Brent Hayden: Luckily, I got some financial help with the Victor Davis Memorial Fund. I had a local business gave me a small check, and I don’t think I really realized how close I had actually come to my parents just telling me that they just can’t afford to keep taking me to swim practice anymore. If I hadn’t received that help, I don’t know if I would have been able to continue. I admit, I was totally oblivious to it. As far as I knew, my parents had money, because if they’re driving me to practice then they have money. I found out years later that that really wasn’t the case. That they were really stretching themselves really thin. I wanted to make sure that no athletes in Canada have to face those decisions when they have the talent, they have the drive, they have everything except the money. That they don’t have to sit there and go, “Okay, well I can’t put gas in my car to get to training.”
We’re not at the point yet where we’re able to write big, fat checks to our athletes, so the way it works is customers, when they come to our online store at astraathletica.com, they have a chance to actually choose an athlete that they want their purchase to support, and by choosing an athlete, we’ll actually give the customer a 10% discount as our way of saying thank you. Then we donate 10% of the purchase directly into the pocket of the athlete, just to make sure that they got gas in their car, making sure that they don’t have to opt for the prepackaged frozen dinners, that they’re actually buying good foods so they’re recovering well, or maybe even being able to get an airplane ticket so that they can go to that training camp that they so desperately need to go to. We just want to make sure that they don’t have to say not to something that can actually help them continue to chase their dreams.
Brenton Ford: Yeah, that’s a great idea. I like how you’ve been able to, I guess, find purpose in life after swimming, bu helping other swimmers, athletes who might be in a similar situation to you when you were early on in your career. What sort of comparisons have you drawn from swimming and business, that you’ve found has helped you getting to where you are at the moment with Astra Athletica?
Brent Hayden: It’s funny that our slogan right now is rise through challenge, because that’s exactly what this business has gone through. I literally was living that in sport, so I think that’s probably been the biggest skill that I probably learned from sport, just perseverance. Because as I was able to learn new skills and take on a lot of the workings of it myself, as well as with my wife who she’s actually still studying for her social media certification from Hootsuite, we were able to change and adapt, and take on anything that we needed to be able to take on in order to grow this.
But there were a lot of challenges that we ended up facing in manufacturing. One, we tried to have everything manufactured in Vancouver, and we spent a lot of money over about two years, working with pattern makers here, fabric suppliers, before we finally realized that when you calculate everything and look at what a real retail model is, that there’s no way the business would have actually been able to survive if we had actually had it all manufactured here. We spent a lot of money and a lot of time before we were finally able to learn that, so we had to take it all overseas.
Now we ended up actually getting better quality over there, and everything works a lot smoother, but one of the challenges is actually sometimes we had to get the orders all the way over here, and then run them through quality control where we’re wearing them and throwing them in the wash, and then realizing that oh, this stuff isn’t ready to release yet, and have to talk to the manufacturer and have them actually redo some of the orders.
We actually thought we were going to launch late 2016, early 2017, now we didn’t end up launching until early summer 2018 because of all these delays. But one thing we knew was we weren’t going to launch unless everything was absolutely perfect, and so just because that we’re facing a challenge, we weren’t just going to just let’s just do it anyways because we need to make money. No. It has to be perfect, and maybe that’s the Olympian in me. It’s always got to be the absolute best and nothing but the best I’m not going to settle for anything unless it’s the best.
I think the brand itself evolved through the message that we’re trying to convey, that you’re going to face challenges and that’s okay. When you get challenged, you have to either adapt or re-strategize, but there is always a way to continue moving forward.
Brenton Ford: Yeah. Well don’t on pushing through that time. Now when I look at any project that I want to do, I normally try and times it by two with how long I think it will take and how much it will cost to do, because it’s just what I’ve learnt over the last couple of years with doing nearly anything. Because I’m going though the same process at the moment with starting a swim product, swim equipment business that’s related to or tied to Effortless Swimming, and working with a product designer who’s licensed products to Speedo. He’s almost like a mad scientist when it comes to designing those products.
That’s one phase of it, but then there’s the manufacturing phase, and making sure, again, its like making sure it’s the right quality, that these products have the right buoyancy, and there’s a lot that goes into it. I remember when I first started chatting to him, he was [inaudible 00:58:58], “I’ve got these designs, we can probably get these out, ready to go in two or three months time. It won’t take that long.” This is four, five months ago, and these things take so much time that it’s really easy to underestimate the time to do that. Yeah, well done on finally launching it. It must have been a good moment for you, to finally get there.
Brent Hayden: Yeah, it was. First of all, congratulations on your swim equipment business. That sounds fantastic. Yeah, it was definitely a good moment for us, but at the same time, it’s like I think that’s just the one thing that I got from sport, that as soon as you’ve done one race or one championship, you’re already looking at the next one. There isn’t really a whole lot of time to really celebrate before you’ve got to get back to business and [inaudible 00:59:51].
When we launched, we definitely felt very good, we had a glass of wine that night, to celebrate, but it wasn’t anything crazy because we’re already thinking okay, we launched. Now we’ve got to move the product out the door. We’ve got to onboard these athletes and we’ve got to start making them money, so that way, what we are doing is actually making a difference in their lives, and we’re not just a company that just give athletes free clothes. Because there are so many companies out there that do that. We want to make sure that we’re actually the guys that are actually going to be helping them along the way.
Now one thing that’s really cool too, about our program that ill say too, is that we also designed the endorsement or the sponsorship deal with these athletes, that we’re not really sponsoring them, that we are funding them. If we actually do help them get to that performance where suddenly they actually had that breakthrough performance because we made sure they were getting to practice or training, or because of the gas and all the other things I already mentioned, then another bigger brand want to come along and say, “Hey, you know what? We love you, we love your story, and we want to sign you. Here’s a big fat check, you want to take it?” That we can actually say, “You know what? Go for it. We are so happy that we helped you get to that point.” There’s no trying to hang on to the athlete. We just want to help them get to whatever is best for them.
Brenton Ford: Yeah. I think that’s so important in wanting the best for the athletes. Think back to the 2009 World Champs where there was no contract obligation for you to miss out on what everyone else is getting because of a certain brand has control over you that way. I think maybe short-term that might hurt the business financially, but long-term I think it’s a better play. Actually having the athlete’s interests at heart is much more important long-term for any person or any business.
That’s the approach that I’ve tried to have running Effortless Swimming, where on our website, when we have clinics, I say there’s a seven day cancellation policy. If you don’t cancel before 7 days prior to the clinic, it’s non-refundable and stuff, but we still end up refunding people and moving them to the next clinic. People get sick on the day, whatever it might be, and I just think well we took a hit, that’s fine. Better off long-term to look after people and do the right thing. Because if I was in their shoes, that’s what I’d. I make decisions with that in mind, about well how would I feel if I was in their shoes? So far it’s worked out really well.
Brent Hayden: Yeah. No, for me too. It’s like I got inspired when I was younger, people helped me when I was younger, I’ve got to be able to do the same thing. If I’m not doing that, then if I’m not doing that then I’m not going to be able to sleep at night. I think that’s the way that business are started to move now. I think a lot more business now are starting to take on more social responsible, and starting to have a more higher moral standards, beyond what just the bottom line is, just what the profits are. That they are trying to make a difference in the communities that they reside in now as well.
Brenton Ford: Yeah. I think part of the reason with that too is it’s word spreads so quickly now with social media, and well, Instagram, Twitter, and everyone’s so contactable and they’ve got big networks that if you do the wrong thing, then people find out very quickly.
Brent Hayden: That’s correct.
Brenton Ford: Which is a good and bad thing in some ways. I think some people, they cop it too much in the media for a minor thing that they’ve done. They might have the 24 hour news cycle just hit them, like you probably had when you got beat up by riot police. I think people cop that pretty bad these days, just with how much stuff people can put out online.
Brent Hayden: Yeah. We didn’t have online back then, or we might have had online newspapers, but we didn’t have Twitter or Facebook or anything yet. But even with that, I was walking in downtown Vancouver, and people were coming up to me like, “Why did you go out the night before the relay and party? You are such a disgrace to the country.” I had people leaving messages on my parent’s answering machine because they were in the phone book. Just leaving all sorts of nasty messages. I can only imagine how much worse that actually would have been had something like Twitter or Instagram or somebody, or one of those actually existed. As great as they are, but like you said, there’s always that downside that some negative news, whether its real or not, actually does, it spreads like crazy.
Brenton Ford: Yeah. I guess the only good thing, or the good thing these days is you would have a chance to defend yourself through Twitter or Instagram. You could actually tell your side of the story, whereas back then, yeah, it’s just this is what the newspaper says, so it must be true.
Brent Hayden: Yeah.
Brenton Ford: Well I want to thank you so much for joining me on the podcast. I’ve really enjoyed chatting about your story when it comes to three Olympics and an Olympic bronze, and seeing what you’re up to now. Congratulations on your career as a swimmer, and all the best for this new venture. I hope it goes well and that you don’t face too many more challenges like that, but I’m sure they’ll come up, they always do. But really appreciate your time, and for sharing your story on the podcast.
Brent Hayden: Thanks so much Brenton for having me on to chat. I really appreciated it.
Outro: Thanks for listening to the Effortless Swimming Podcast. If you’d like us to help you become a faster, more efficient swimmer, got to effortlessswimming.com.