4x Olympian & World Champion Swimmer talks retirement, recovery, and a much-anticipated comeback

4x Olympian & World Champion Swimmer talks retirement, recovery, and a much-anticipated comeback

The Apollo community is a diverse community who all share a common belief – that the human body is powerful and we have the capacity to heal. We'll highlight powerful stories from Apollo users and their causes through a series of member features. 

Brent Hayden, a 4x Canadian Olympic swimmer, reached out to share his experience with Apollo Neuro. As a world champion swimmer, Brent discusses performing under pressure, mental health stigma among athletes, dealing with chronic pain, and how he uses Apollo Neuro to prioritize recovery.

Can you walk us through your journey as an Olympic athlete?

My first Olympics were in Athens in 2004. I did not do well, and the days following were even worse. I nearly quit swimming at that point because I was in such a dark place. The night before closing the Closing Ceremonies (and 6 days after I was done competing), I was out with a group of other athletes and we found ourselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. Coming across a line of riot police standing shield to shield, we tried to discuss where to go from there, when suddenly the crowd turned violent, and the police charged and fired rubber bullets into the crowd. I was targeted by the police, thrown face down into the street, beaten (witnesses say there were 5 officers beating me), and eventually arrested only to be released 45 minutes later with the only explanation that it happened because I was tall and wearing a dark shirt. I was only 20 years old at this point, and between my age and my disappointing performance, I came home in an incredibly low place mentally. Ultimately, I didn't quit, but I knew I had a lot of work to do to get where I wanted to be — both mentally and physically. 

After the Olympics, I started working with my team’s sports psychologist to work through some of the trauma I carried. Beyond feeling emotionally scarred, I suffered an injury to the arm that I was using to protect my head that didn't allow me to compete in the upcoming World Championship. 

Four years later, at the 2008 Olympic trials, I spent a night in the hospital because back spasms flattened me. I could barely walk, and they lasted four days. I didn't experience pain at the Olympics, but my ego from being crowned World Champion the year before made me expect to get to the finals, where I'd turn the heat on. But despite swimming two tenths faster than what I swam to win my world championship title just the year before, I got 12th and had to watch the finals from the stands. Again, I was disappointed with my performance at the Olympics.

The back spasms continued. Leading up to the 2012 games in London, the back spasms were getting so intense and frequent that it took a toll on my confidence and gravely affected my mental health. At the point where I felt like I had a lot of making up to do, I needed to prove to myself and others that I could succeed at the Olympic level. How can I keep the mindset that I'm a medal contender when everything is going wrong? I was dealing with some heavy things in my personal life, too. I had a coach and teammates who believed in me, and I was able to cope as an athlete. But I couldn't cope with my mental health outside of the pool.

What was going on mentally?

It was all related: the back spasms, my mental health, and my disappointing performances. And two weeks before the London Olympic games at our staging camp, I suffered another severe back spasm that left me unable to walk, let alone pull myself off the floor to get onto my bed. I began to have doubts that I would be ready for London. Thoughts of retiring before the games began to creep into my head, because I couldn’t stomach the thought of failing at the Olympics again. I credit my coach for pushing me in a way right before the London games that let me have a breakdown and then re-channel my energy to compete. I mentally committed to competing in London, despite wanting to quit, and my body followed. I made it to finals, finishing in 6th. It wasn’t a very good swim. Lots of little things went wrong. But I swam that race like it was my last, because when I stood on the blocks, I knew it could be. In the media area after the race, one reporter asked me what it meant to make the finals. Thinking back to all the failures I had endured at the previous Olympics to get me here, I broke down in tears and I said “it means everything”. 

Walking to my block for the finals the next evening, I thought about everything that had gone wrong leading up to this point. The back spasm that left me unable to walk for 4 days only two weeks previously. The fact that I was the oldest swimmer in the final by 5 years. Even that day my rib was painfully out of place. I thought of every reason why I shouldn’t succeed that day...but I knew I only needed one reason why I could. And in that moment, I felt like the most powerful swimmer on the blocks. When I touched the wall and realized I won a bronze medal, I don’t think any other color could have felt any better. I had finally done it. 

However, looking forward, I did not see any solutions to my chronic back spasms, and with my aging body, only saw it getting worse. Also, the issues that were affecting my mental health outside of the pool remained. I could not see any reason to keep swimming. So I decided before the Closing Ceremonies, to announce my retirement, and leave my sport on high note.

What was the decision like to retire?

I wouldn't say I like the way I retired. I retired because I came to hate the sport, and my body was in intense pain. At 27, I was old to be competing, and I knew I was only getting older. After retiring, I married my then-fiance, now wife, and we spent time living in Lebanon and Canada. I wanted what I considered a "normal life."

Thinking about swimming was really painful — I didn't leave in a good place. I'd try to go and swim on my own, but I couldn't stay for more than 15 minutes. In those seven years in retirement, I swam less than ten times. My wife, who is also a former competitive swimmer, and I worked on a project to build a curriculum for our swim academy. We wanted to create a learn-to-swim program that taught the fundamentals of high performance. We ran and tested the program with local swim teams all across Canada for almost a decade but we wanted to make the program accessible to everyone! So we decided to film it and release it online! We found a really beautiful pool in Lebanon to do our filming, and we began filming. But something unexpected happened. Getting in the water every day and going through the drills made me realize how amazing my body actually felt in the water, and how good my stroke felt! But more importantly, it made me remember all the things I had forgotten I loved about swimming.

It wasn't the medals and the podiums I missed, but the relationships and the sense of goal to strive for. Coupling this emotional bond I was feeling with the water again with how good my body was feeling, I started reaching out to a few Olympic swimmers who had come back to competition post-retirement. The seed was planted for me to come back, and little by little, bits of confidence came back. I knew if I was coming back, I was doing it with my old coach. I reached out to Swimming Canada, but didn’t want to get my hopes up too much. After all, I had been retired for 7 years and was getting ready to celebrate my 36th birthday. I came up with all these reasons they could say “no” in my head. Like, even if it’s not my age or the time out of the water, maybe there’s just no room in the training centers anymore, maybe they want to focus on their young up and coming talent… all these reasons I came up with, but I sent off that email anyways. The reply was nothing like I anticipated: "We're behind you 100%." I made the decision: I was coming back. 

What's different this time around?

The most significant difference is the amount of time I'm putting into recovery. When I was younger, I could get by with less sleep. I could increase training, and my performance improved exponentially. Now it's sleep, nutrition, stretching, and recovery. 

My mental health is the best it's ever been. There are struggles of being an elite athlete. If I thought I was old in 2012, I've only gotten older. I've learned to adapt and train for my age. I allow myself to do less than my teammates. I've dialed in my nutrition, invested in a good mattress, and discovered Apollo Neuro.

How'd you find Apollo?

I must have been doing a lot of research into recovery online because Apollo found me on a Facebook ad. I wasn't interested in just tracking my biometrics; I wanted a tool to help me improve and recover. I read all the research on the website, and must have been talking about it a lot because when I came home from Budapest where I was competing in the ISL, my wife got it for me for my birthday and it was waiting on the table all nicely wrapped. I was blown away by it immediately.

I've always had a huge issue with falling asleep, and I became dependent on Melatonin. The Melatonin bottle has sat empty since November in my cupboard since Apollo has been on me.

It's all about recovery this time around, and it's been a total game-changer for me. Most mornings, I wake up and put Apollo on Energy and Wake Up. Twice a week, I have early morning training sessions, so I'll use it on the drive. After a workout in the pool, I do Rebuild and Recover for the drive home. I really like to use Relax and Unwind when I'm relaxing and watching Netflix at night. And I always use Sleep and Renew at night. I’ve even noticed that my gym sessions are more intense and require less rest between sets when I use the Rebuild and Recover there too!

In my teens, I was diagnosed with an auditory processing disorder. Basically, I get overwhelmed by too much going on, and I'll get drowsy and fall asleep. I'll need things repeated 2 or 3 times to process truly, and I really struggled with Zoom calls at the beginning of quarantine; I just couldn't take it in. I would have to fidget just to maintain concentration. Now, I use Clear and Focused on calls, and it's completely changed my ability to be present. 

How has your mental game changed in preparation, training and competing?

Swimming is an exciting sport because your success often comes down to a hundredth of a second — the degree of separation between a gold medal and 4th place is so tiny. A British cycling coach popularized the one percent rule. If you can get just one percent better each day, you end up 37 times better by the time you get to the end of the year. I try to do this with everything, particularly sleep, recovery, and nutrition. 

I don't like formally setting goals because I have a more challenging time adhering to them when I write them down. I just kind of come up with goals. But it's crucial for me not to overanalyze everything because I could just bury myself. It's more of a mental framework; in the moment, how can I do all of this better?

When I work with younger athletes, I encourage them to identify one thing to be a little bit better at than yesterday. Do this every single day; maybe it's making sure your alarm is set 5 minutes earlier to make a better breakfast. In practice, perhaps it's focusing on the perfect flip turn, or a tighter streamline. I tell young athletes if you want to be an extraordinary athlete, you can't be an ordinary teenager. You have to be willing to be extraordinary to be extraordinary. You won't get there by being ordinary. 

And this is advice I carry for myself every day, too. 

What has changed since you started using Apollo?

The very first thing I noticed was my sleep! Going to bed feeling stressed about whether or not I was going to be able to fall asleep quickly became normal. And of course, the more stressed about it I became, the longer it took me to fall asleep. And when it takes me a long time to fall asleep, the less quality sleep I get, which means I am not able to train or recover at the level I need to. Being able to actually relax when I close my eyes and just trust that sleep is going to come has made a huge difference. And when I do wake up at some point in the middle of the night, I just hit the two buttons to restart the Sleep and Recover mode, and I’m back asleep. And this has directly impacted how well and how consistently I am able to train at a high level.

I’ve become more mindful about how physical stress can manifest in mental stress. Using Apollo and the various modes for different points of my day helps me manage that in a way I’ve never been able to before. Even my wife who suffers from PTSD from growing up as a young child during the Lebanese Civil War has her own Apollo now and is experiencing benefits of her own. 

Overall, being able to manage my mind, body, and soul out of the pool is helping me improve when I am in the pool… as well as just about every other aspect of my life too.