Kelvin Yee made an announcement at the Hay River Swim Club Christmas party that was a little far-fetched for some members.
The NWT Swimming Association President and local coach told his swimmers, and their equally incredulous parents, that Olympic bronze-medallist swimmer Brent Hayden was going to visit Hay River for a few days in January. Yee had gotten confirmation of the trip just before Christmas.
“The room went quiet and their eyes got really big,” he said. “The parents were buzzing, they were pretty excited.”
True to his word, Yee showed up at the Hay River Aquatic Centre on the evening of Jan. 14 with Hayden by his side.
The now-retired swimmer, the first Canadian to win an Olympic medal in the 100-metre freestyle event, didn’t even want to unpack his bags first. He asked Yee to go straight from the airport to the pool.
“When I heard the kids were already in the water, I just wanted to go to the pool right off the bat,” Hayden said on a Jan. 16 visit to the Hub, hours before his departure for Yellowknife and another round of clinics.
Charismatic and humble, Hayden talked about his swimming career, his travels and his favourite experiences.
He said he was impressed by the determination and desire to learn Hay River’s swimmers exemplified during his visit.
“The kids’ eyes were glued on me all the time and they listened really well,” he said.
“One thing that’s great is that they weren’t getting frustrated if they were doing something wrong, they kept an open mind and a willingness to learn new things.”
Hayden said he focused on teaching body positioning and good hydrodynamics, essential parts of a swimmer’s mechanics.
When he wasn’t in the pool, he was at Hay River’s schools talking to students. He said one of the hardest questions he was asked was about how he dealt with depression in his career.
“I told her when that happens not to keep it to herself,” he said. “Try to remember why it is you’re there in the first place. If you love doing something, strategize how you’re going to get through that tough time.”
He said that like many people, success, didn’t come right away.
“I got discouraged a lot of times along the way, and I had to take a step back and look at the broader picture,” he said.
The quest to get Hayden to Hay River began in late September 2012, when Yee noticed that Hayden had just joined Twitter, the popular social networking service. He sent a message to the swimmer and asked about a possible trip to the NWT.
“I thought, it won’t hurt to try,” Yee said.
After a few days of silence, Yee thought it was a lost cause. Then, a week later, Hayden wrote back and said he was interested.
“We e-mailed back and forth and meanwhile I talked to the people at the Polar Bear Swim Club in Yellowknife about scheduling,” Yee said.
This wasn’t the first Olympian the Hay River Swim Club had managed to bring for a visit: in April 2009, swimmer Mike Brown spent a few days here running clinics.
“Any time you can get an Olympic athlete or one of the top coaches in the country to come and talk to kids, and re-confirm what you’ve been telling them: that’s priceless,” Yee said.
He was also pleased that swimmers from Fort Smith had been able to make it to Hay River on Jan. 15 to spend some time with Hayden.
The three days were a whirlwind for Hayden, who didn’t get the opportunity to practice another passion of his: photography. However, he said leaving his camera gear at home was probably for the best.
“I think it would have been more of a distraction than anything else,” he said.
He said he wants to come back to the NWT someday and take advantage of the landscape and Northern Lights. The best he could do, for now, was to take a picture of St. Anne’s Church on the Hay River Reserve with his iPhone.
Back in Vancouver, he’s also keeping busy by filling up his calendar with clinics and helping his singer/songwriter wife, Nadina, with her emerging career. The couple got married in Beirut, Lebanon last year, his wife’s native country.
— Myles Dolphin