Brent Hayden’s stunning split-second decision to quit Olympic, competitive swimming

LONDON — In Athens he was beaten, both in the pool and by riot police. In Beijing, his miscalculation in a semifinal heat cost him a spot in the championship race. But in London, Canada's Brent Hayden finally captured an Olympic medal: bronze, in the men's 100-meter freestyle.

Hayden said it was his last Olympic appearance.

"I pretty much knew it was going to be my last Olympics. But the Olympics are only every four years. There's a lot of stuff that happens in between as well. I was thinking that maybe this wasn't it yet for me," he said.

Hayden was going to give himself two months to reflect on his career and decide if his competitive fire was still burning for events like the Commonwealth Games and world championships.

What he didn't anticipate was having The Moment.

[Slideshow: Brent Hayden]

It's what every elite athlete near the end of his or her career searches for: The Moment when one feels like they can walk away. That little voice saying, "Go now or hang on past your expiration date. The Moment that an athlete can share with friends and relatives as a perfect farewell.

"I was going to give myself two months to see if there was a moment when it felt right. And if that Moment didn't come, then I would have just kept swimming," he said.

It turns out, Hayden's Moment came at Canada House on Sunday, during a medal ceremony.

As he was on stage, a video montage of his career played. The Canadian national anthem played. The crowd chanted his name. Brent wept during his speech, thanking them.

It was then he realized this was The Moment to announce he wouldn't swim again competitively, either in the Olympics or in international championship events.

It wasn't something he planned, or anticipated. It just felt right.

"I didn't know I was going to do that before I walked on stage," he said. "I felt this was where I wanted to tell people I was done."

[Related: Bronze as good as gold for Hayden]

The bronze medal capped a career with highs and lows for Hayden, 28, although he said most of the lows came at the Olympics.

In the 2004 Athens Games, Hayden was a non-factor in swimming and was assaulted and arrested by riot police during a bizarre case of mistaken identity.

"That was just out of my control. We were just walking down the street, enjoying the Olympic celebrations. They picked me out of a crowd because I was tall and wearing a dark shirt and they just beat me up for a little bit and put the cuffs on me," he said.

The episode helped fuel his desire to succeed at the 2008 Beijing Games.

"I don't want to be known as the swimmer who went to the Olympics, sucked, and then got beat up," he said. "That's not what I dreamed about as a little kid."

Alas, Beijing proved to be a major disappointment, too. He was expected to medal heading into the 100-meter free event, but didn't make the cut after an attempt to conserve energy in the qualifying heat.

[Slideshow: Canadian medallists of London 2012]

"I made a miscalculation in the semifinals. I thought I could save a little energy for the final. I thought I could hold back and still make it through, but I didn't get a lane for the Final," recalled Hayden, who was touting the Powerade Sports Academy in London on Monday.

(It's an academy for amateur athletes from 13 countries that seeks to improve their performance through hydration tests and assorted sports science training.)

It looked like London could have been another disappointment for Hayden, who was struggling through chronic back problems in the weeks leading up to the Games. But he held it together, and won bronze in the 100-free with a time of 47.8 seconds before deciding his career was complete.

So what's next? First, he'll marry fiancée Nadina Zarifeh in Lebanon, a singer whose track with Delerium dropped last week.

After that, he'll support her in her music career, work on his photography hobby … and wait until that itch to return to competitive swimming arrives.

[More: Is success from Vancouver Games translating to London?]

Then comes the real challenge for a veteran athlete: Allowing The Moment to remain an immaculate farewell, or succumbing to the temptation of One More Run.

"The drive to compete will never leave you. It's our drug, essentially," he said.

Despite that ... Sunday night at Canada House, hanging up his goggles after a bronze medal? "It was perfect," said Hayden.

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