When it dawned on Brent Hayden what he had just done, words failed him. His lower lip trembled; his eyes clouded over. For the first time in 12 years, one of Canada's most accomplished swimmers had just earned his place in an Olympic final.
Just him and seven other athletes going for the medals. After all he'd been through – the death of his grandfather, the physical beating in Athens, the heartbreak in Beijing.
Hayden tried to explain what making Wednesday's 100-metre freestyle meant but his emotions kept bubbling to the surface.
"Third Olympics, first individual final. It's like …" he said before a lengthy pause. "It's what I've dreamed of as a little kid. It means everything."
In what could have been his last individual race of his Olympic career, Hayden turned his Tuesday night semi-final into his most satisfying Olympic accomplishment. Third at the turn, he finished fourth in his heat but his time of 48.21 proved to be the sixth-best overall. It was good enough to earn him a lane in the 100 free final and leave him hoping for more. He's the first Canadian to qualify for the 100 free final since Dick Pound in 1960. Canada has never won a medal in the race.
"I definitely know where technically I have room for improvement," he explained. "I was a little too shallow coming off the wall on the turn, [got] nailed by an incoming wave so I had to build up my speed more than I wanted to. My goggle strap wasn't done up tight enough and sort of fell down a little bit …"Then I misjudged the wall coming in. I probably should have touched it with the other arm. All those things aside, I've got a little room on the technical aspect."
The Olympics have been a cruel temptress for Hayden, who has won a gold and silver medal at the world aquatic championships, proving he has the jam to race with the best. He won his gold under duress – his 92-year-old grandfather died before Hayden's medal swim. Before he left for the worlds in Australia, Hayden promised his grandfather in Maple Ridge, B.C., he'd win him a medal.
Hayden delivered on cue.
The Olympics, though, have not gone as well. In Athens, he was trapped outside a restaurant and got caught in skirmish between locals and the police. Hayden was clubbed on the arms, had his Olympic accreditation taken and was thrown in jail. It took the Canadian embassy and the RCMP to spring him loose.
In Beijing, Hayden entered as the world silver medalist in the 100 free and figured he could cruise his way into the final. He was stunned when he found himself on the outside looking in.
"I'm holding nothing back," he said after his 100-metre heat on Monday. "I made that mistake in Beijing. I had a relay that night and it played in my head and I had a little too much confidence being world champ the year before., I thought I had room to save energy and I didn't really focus is getting into the final, making sure it happened."
Older, wiser, Hayden's only promise for London was to race to the best of his abilities every time he hit the water. "He's so much stronger physically and mentally," said Swimming Canada national coach Pierre Lafontaine. "You can see it in the way he swims."
What the 28-year-old Hayden sees next are some minor adjustments and a last individual swim to be proud of.
"Every major competition I've always gone a little bit faster throughout the competition, Beijing aside," he said. "I'm going to have to find even more speed just start digging down deeper and finding some of that that I've never dived into before."
Hayden is the first Canadian male to race in a 100-metre freestyle final since Dick Pound.
Scott Dickens, of Burlington, Ont., raced in the 200-metre breaststroke Monday and won his heat in a personal best of 2:10.95. He finished last in his semi-final.
Audrey Lacroix, of Pont-Rouge, Que., qualified for the semi-finals of the women's 200-m butterfly. She did not advance to the final.