Shouts From The Stands: Brent Hayden The Canadian Underdog Legend

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This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Jake Meyermann:

Brent Hayden: The Canadian Underdog Legend

Canadian swimmers have always struggled to gain relevancy in the modern competitive world of swimming. Brent Hayden had faced adversity at seemingly every moment in his career. Looking at the blistering times he’s swam over the last seven years of his career, he’s easily become the most underappreciated underdog in men’s sprinting. It’s fascinating how in a field of all-time greatest including Cesar Cielo Filho and Eamon Sullivan, most seem to forget the man responsible for consistently defeating them and posting insanely fast swims on a regular basis.

Interestingly, Hayden began his elite swimming career as a successful 200 Freestyler. His first truly competitive race at an international level arguably happened not in the 100m sprint, but in the 200m Freestyle in Montreal at the 2005 World Aquatic Championships. He placed 4th in a stellar field including Phelps, Hackett, and Peter Vanderkaay. Phelps notably blew away the rest of the field by nearly a second with a 1:45.20, but Hayden fought hard for a 1:46.85, just 0.23 seconds off the podium.

At the same meet he made the final in the 100m Freestyle along with Phelps, but neither were in real contention for the title (48.92/6th for Hayden and 48.99/7th for Phelps). However the comparison could instantly be made that Hayden’s race strategy in the sprint mirrored that of Phelps. Both swimmers used their built-up years of 200m endurance to swim an easy opening 50m before turning on the jets coming home.

2006 Pan Pacific Swimming Championships

This race strategy ultimately paid off. The next year at the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships, Hayden won his first international race in the 100 Freestyle final, edging out Jason Lezak 48.59 to 48.76 for the gold. The time may not have been earth shattering, but the victory served as a foreshadowing for the success to come, as he defeated a field including Eamon Sullivan and Cesar Cielo Filho.

2007 World Aquatic Championships

The following year, Hayden broke through at the 2007 World Aquatics Championships. In a star-studded 100m Freestyle final, Hayden tied with Italy’s Filippo Magnini with a time of 48.43. He once again edged out powerhouses Lezak, Sullivan, Cielo Filho, and Peter van den Hoogenband for the gold medal. His time was the second fastest in the year, as Phelps miraculously stunned the field in the 4 x 100m Freestyle opening leg with a 48.42 split. Notably, Hayden was the second fastest swimmer in the pool on this leg with a 48.55.

Beijing 2008

The 2008 Olympics in Beijing proved to be Hayden’s greatest adversity in his career. He felt the monumental pressure of Canada on his shoulders and paid the price with several poor decisions. After placing 3rd in the heats with a smooth 1:46.40 200m Freestyle (ahead of Phelps), Hayden dropped the event to focus on the 100m Freestyle. The opening heat once again placed him 3rd with a swift 47.84. Unfortunately, a small miscalculation of speed cost Hayden in the semifinal as he failed to qualify for the Olympic Final with a time of 48.20.

This error was made even more heartbreaking by his results in the 4 x 100m Freestyle relay. There, Hayden swam a blistering 47.56 leadoff leg, which would have given him the bronze medal in the final:

Beijing 2008 100 Freestyle Final
1. Alain Bernard – 47.21
2. Eamon Sullivan – 47.32
3. Brent Hayden – 47.56 (Hypothetical)
4. Jason Lezak – 47.67
5. Cesar Cielo Filho – 47.67

His 100m Freestyle leadoff leg proved to be the 7th fastest performance in Beijing, and the 4th fastest performer of the Olympics:

Fastest 100 Freestyle Times in Beijing
1. Eamon Sullivan – 47.05 (Semifinal)
2. Alain Bernard – 47.20 (Semifinal)
3. Alain Bernard – 47.21 (Final)
4. Eamon Sullivan – 47.24 (Leadoff)
5. Eamon Sullivan – 47.32 (Final)
6. Michael Phelps – 47.51 (Leadoff)
7. Brent Hayden – 47.56 (Leadoff)

Considering the fact that historically, the winning times of the 100m Freestyle are comparatively quicker than the leadoff leg of the relay, Hayden could’ve hypothetically swam even faster than his 47.56.

Hayden proved even more depth in the 4x200m Freestyle relay, where his stunning 1:44.42 split was the 4th fastest in the entire relay, behind only Phelps, Lochte, and Magnini:

Fastest 200 Freestyle Splits in Beijing
1. Michael Phelps – 1:43.31 (Leadoff)
2. Filippo Magnini – 1:44.12
3. Ryan Lochte – 1:44.28
4. Brent Hayden – 1:44.42

The race happened in the same session following his 100m Freestyle semifinal disappointment. The fact that Hayden was able to come back from such a crushing loss and post a blistering 200m Freestyle is commendable. His performance once again provided a bittersweet moment however, as his 1:44.42 would have hypothetically brought him to the podium in the 200m Freestyle final. Adding 0.4-0.7 seconds for a flat start brings him to a 1:44.82-1:45.12. These times are good enough for 2nd and 3rd respectively.

There’s also the possibility of Hayden swimming even faster in a hypothetical 200m Freestyle final. In the relay, he was Canada’s third swimmer and battled from 6th position to 2nd. Swimming head-to-head against Phelps for gold could have brought on something otherworldly. Once again arguing the fact that swimmers historically swim slower times in relays than individual races (Phelps for example went 1:43.31 – about 0.4 off his legendary 1:42.96), and that Hayden swam the semifinal earlier, he could have hypothetically gone even faster in the 200m final. It’s an unfortunate circumstance that we will never get to see unfold.

Another thing holding Hayden back was his Canadian teammates, as they failed to advance to the final in the 4 x 100m Medley relay. However, Hayden swam an insane 46.84 in the PRELIMS. His split was by far the fastest prelim split, and was the third fastest freestyle leg overall in the medley relay:

Fastest 100 Freestyle Medley Splits in Beijing
1. Eamon Sullivan – 46.65
2. Jason Lezak – 46.76
3. Brent Hayden – 46.84

Taking his performance a step further, Hayden posted the 6th fastest of the entire Beijing Olympics across BOTH relays:

Fastest 100 Freestyle Splits in Beijing
1. Jason Lezak – 46.06
2. Frederick Bousquet – 46.63 (4 x 100m Freestyle prelim)
3. Eamon Sullivan – 46.65
4. Alain Bernard – 46.73
5. Jason Lezak – 46.76
6. Brent Hayden – 46.84 (Prelim)

Again picturing a hypothetical final with Hayden in the water head-to-head with Lezak and Sullivan, the Canadian’s potential rises expotentially higher.

ROME 2009

The 2009 World Aquatics Championships in Rome presented an absurd amount of world records, thanks to FINA’s acceptance of the polyurethane suits. The 100m Freestyle was no exception, as Casesar Cielo Filho scorched the field with a 46.91 world record – the first and only man under 47.00 seconds. Brent Hayden finished 4th in the event, with a titanic 47.27, only 0.36 seconds shy of gold.

What makes this so impressive? Once again mirroring Michael Phelps, Hayden was the only swimmer in the final wearing a Speedo LZR, the same suit he wore in Beijing, while everyone else wore rubberized Arena X-Glide or Jaked suits, providing them with a massive advantage.

Rome 2009 – 100 Freestyle Final
1. Cesar Cielo Filho (Brazil) – 46.91
2. Alain Bernard (France) – 47.12
3. Frederick Bousquet (France) – 47.25
4. Brent Hayden (Canada) – 47.27
5. David Walter (United States) – 47.33
6. Stefan Nystrand (Sweden) – 47.37
7. Lyndon Ferns (South Africa) – 47.94
8. Nicolas Oliveira (Brazil) – 48.01

Prediction: If Brent Hayden had worn a Jaked or Arena X-Glide polyurethane suit, he would have won the 100m Freestyle final and shattered the world record.

Breaking down just what kind of advantage these record-breaking suits gave, we can hypothetically calculate just how fast Hayden could go. Below are the fastest times each other swimmer in the final swam in 2008 and 2009:

Cesar Cielo Filho/47.67/46.91/0.76 seconds
Alain Bernard/47.20/47.12/0.08 seconds
Frederick Bousquet/48.52/47.25/0.73 seconds
David Walter/49.04/47.33/1.71 seconds
Stefan Nystrand/47.83/47.37/0.46 seconds
Lyndon Ferns/48.00/47.79/0.21 seconds
Nicolas Oliveira/47.83/47.78/0.05 seconds

Average = 0.57 seconds

Taking the average difference between the best times of 2008 and 2009 from each swimmer in the final wearing a rubber suit, we get and incredible 0.57 seconds. Cielo’s own world record time dropped by an even more astounding 0.76 seconds. By dropping Hayden’s own 47.27 by the average margin, he would have blown the world record away with a 46.70. Dropping his 47.27 by Cielo’s margin of 0.76, we get an otherworldly 46.51, making even James Magnussen’s 47.10 from 2012 look absolutely pedestrian in comparison.

Why calculate the 47.27 over his 47.56 from 2008 like everyone else? Simply put, 47.27 is pretty close to his hypothetical 100m Freestyle final time, for as we proved earlier, most sprinters swim individually faster than in leadoff legs. 2009 was also the year after Beijing, meaning most swimmers aren’t at their physical peak, following some rest after the Olympics. If anything, Hayden could have gone faster than 47.27 if he was at peak performance. Still, taking the margins above into the account on a 47.56, you get 46.99 and 46.80 respectively.

Briefly looking at his relay splits for the medley, Hayden posted the 6th fastest split overall with a 46.87. Once again, this blistering feat was done in the prelims, as Canada failed to final.

2010 Pan Pacs

Moving onwards from the plastic debacle of Rome, Hayden came back with a silver medal swim in the 2010 Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in Irvine California. With the entire world once again reverted to textile jammers, Hayden posted a decent 48.19 behind rising star Nathan Adrian’s 48.15, and defeated both Cielo Filho (48.48) and Lezak (48.57) in the process. Mirroring the 2007 World Championships, Phelps swam the fastest 100m Freestyle since the banning of the rubberized suits with a 48.13 leadoff leg in the 4 x 100m Freestyle relay, thereby making Hayden the 3rd fastest performer at Pan Pac’s.

2010 Commonwealth

Enter the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Held in October, a few months following Pan Pac’s, this was the competition that solidified Hayden as a modern sprinter above all others, as he became the first swimmer to go under the 48.00 barrier in the 100m Freestyle since the suits were banned. Leaving former world record holder Eamon Sullivan in his wake, Hayden dusted the field and posted a blistering 47.98 to win the final. His winning time remained the fastest swim in 2010.

2011 Shanghai

The 2011 World Aquatic Championships in Shanghai the following year proved Hayden’s resilience would not falter. Once again the dark horse in an event featuring the missile Magnussen, Adrian, Cielo Filho, and France’s Fabien Gilot, Hayden swam his heart out. The result was a silver medal swim of 47.95, three tenths behind Magnussen’s stunning 47.63. They were the only two under 48 seconds.

2012 London

Watching the official Olympics YouTube video of the 100m Freestyle final, you wouldn’t think Hayden stood a chance. The colossal faceoff between Adrian and Magnussen was the showstealer while Agnel and Cielo Filho were to battle for the bronze. As he walked out to lane 7, the commentators described Hayden as “a great swimmer, just maybe a touch off the absolute best”, already deeming him a non-factor and sharing the fact that he is the oldest in the final.

Hayden leads with Cielo Filho the opening 25 meters, which the commentators note but explain “that will change”, once again writing off the Canadian that is known to sprint similarly to Michael Phelps. Hayden flips 2nd at the turn, one hundredth behind Cielo Filho, before being lost in the hype of Adrian, Magnussen, and Agnel who remains in the middle of the pack.

Hayden did ultimately end up fading to 3rd, 47.80 to Adrian’s 47.52 and Magnussen’s 47.53, yet he achieves his Olympic dream, something he watched go by him in Beijing. The commentators spend the remaining time shocked that Adrian overcame Manugssen, which is fair considering the magnitude of that outcome. Yet when the scoreboard appears onscreen they seem equally shocked that Brent Hayden, the first man under 48 seconds following the rubber ban, and arguably the most consistent sprinter of the previous six years, comes 3rd. As quickly as Hayden is acknowledged, he is forgotten again as the conversation moves more excitedly to Agnel’s 4th place performance.

Brent Hayden spent his career in the shadows of those whom he consistently defeated. His fastest 100m Freestyle was overshadowed by the absurd polyurethane suits of 2009, and his elite relay splits were never truly acknowledged due to the lack of depth in Canada’s men. He stands as the 6th fastest all-time performer in the event, 3rd only behind Sullivan’s 47.05 and Magnussen’s 47.10 if you remove rubber from the equation, and he is the 7th fastest swimmer in a textile jammer of all-time with his bronze=earning 47.80 in London.

Next time the greatest 100m Freestylers of all time are brought up, do not forget Brent Hayden, the most underappreciated dark horse in the history of men’s sprinting.

Average 100m Freestyle (Top 5 Performances) = 47.67
Average 100m Freestyle (Top 10 Performances) = 47.92
Average 100m Freestyle Relay Split (Top 5 Performances) = 47.22


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Thanks Mitch for the article about Brent Hayden . I truly loved his freestyle stroke & efficiency . He did great things that went nearly unnoticed over the years . Great sprint freestyler to remember .


While I don’t agree he would have smashed the world record because the speed increase is different for everyone and the suits don’t necessarily guarantee better times I.E. Cavic losing to phelps. He would have gone incredibly faster. Great athlete put on a terrible team. I’d love to see an article like this on George Bovell, 21.20 fifty free but not much luck

Jake M

I agree that the speed increase is different for each swimmer, but taking an average was the most sensible way of doing it, along with taking the margin Cesar won by for option two.


“Underdog” perhaps is a bit of a stretch for someone who won a WC gold medal, I for one certainly never considered him that since 2007; but I absolutely knew NOTHING about his past as a 200 freestyler – I always thought he was a pure sprinter. Like Ervinforthewin, I always loved his technique. Great article by the way.


ps Magnini too could have been a great 200 freestyler in his youth. Look at his split above in Bejing: that was made WITHOUT a Speedo LZR racer, and he went faster than anyone else but Phelps, including Lochte…

About Mitch Bowmile

Mitch Bowmile

Mitch Bowmile is a former Canadian age group swimmer who was forced to end his career early due to a labrum tear in his hip and a torn rotator cuff after being recognized as one of the top 50 breaststrokers his age in Canada. He competed successfully at both age …

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