07/31/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 09/29/2012 05:12 EDT

Freestyler hopes to shine after struggling in Athens and Beijing

VANCOUVER - Most of Brent Hayden's tattoos are bigger, but the small one on his back is no less significant.

Like his other body art, the Maple Leaf and Olympic rings illustrate where he came from, and where he's going.

The London Games will be the third, and possibly last, Olympics for the 28-year-old swimmer from Mission, B.C., who is one of Canada's best hopes for a medal in the pool.

From the day in Grade 3 when he stood up in class and told his teacher and classmates that he was going to be an Olympian, Hayden has dreamed of Games glory.

And he's hoping the third time will be a charm.

"Being able to (qualify) a third time, it really means you are the real deal, that you've earned everything that you've worked for," he said. "It's time to just get up and put down the race of your life."

But the Olympics have not been kind to Hayden. After competing in his first Games in Athens in 2004, he and other athletes were exiting a pub when they got caught up in a student protest.

Police beat him with batons and he suffered an elbow injury that forced him to miss the world short-course championships that year.

"I almost quit swimming because of it," he said. "I just couldn't believe that my first Olympic experience could go so awry. I was already emotional because I missed the final in my one-two event, and then I got beat up in this riot that I wasn't even a part of because I got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time."

But he didn't quit. He pressed on and captured the 2007 world 100-metre freestyle championship when he tied for first with Italy's Filippo Magnini. Hayden became the first Canadian to win a world title since the late Victor Davis in 1986 — only to find disappointment again as he failed to qualify for the final of the same event in Beijing in 2008.

He kept going, and four years later he does not feel any emotional burden from his disappointing Olympic past.

"I'm just motivated," he said. "I think that's what's different this time around as opposed to going into Beijing. In Beijing, I was feeling a lot of pressure."

A tattoo on Hayden's torso, a combination of three stars and swirls, depicts the torment he has felt in competition. The stars symbolize his mind, body and soul and represent everything that he has gone through in his chosen sport.

The three stars also have ties to his days in karate. Hayden holds a black belt and had the tattoo done in part as a tribute to his late sensei Tom McDonaugh, who "planted the seed" to be good at what he does.

"They're really symbolic of me, because I've had to overcome so many things with swimming," he said.

The difficulties have included back and shoulder injuries. But Hayden suggested his greatest challenges have been more mental than physical.

"The hardest part is staying positive, because you go through so many ups and downs, whether it's at competitions or in training," he said. "You always have to find a way to get through it mentally and not let it bring you down. You've got to stay on top — no matter what."

But Hayden has much more in his life than swimming and that helps keep him grounded, says coach Tom Johnson.

"He's a kid who doesn't really like to live swimming between workouts," said Johnson. "He's pretty intense. He comes across as being laid-back. The way he manages his own expectations and other people expectations is by having other things in his life besides just swimming."

Through Johnson, Hayden has developed a strong interest in cars, and the two also share a love for hockey. An avid photographer, Hayden hopes to visit some of London's tourist attractions once he's done competing.

And a week after the closing ceremonies end, Hayden will be in Lebanon getting married to Nadina Zarifeh, whose name is tattooed on his left ring finger. He met the Lebanese-Canadian through the University of British Columbia swim club where he trains.

Hayden opens his Olympic campaign Tuesday with the 100-metre freestyle heats and semifinals. The finals go Wednesday. He'll also race in the 50-metre freestyle later in the week.

Johnson says he's ready.

"Any coach will tell you they always think more can be done," Johnson said. "But to be honest, he's done as good a preparation as I've ever seen him do. He's been more consistent, and healthier, and stronger, and swimming faster in training than I've ever seen him swim."

Australian James Magnusson, the reigning world 100-metre champion, provides the real measurement. Hayden has brought his time down from 47.9 seconds earlier this year and last year to the 49.02 mark recently.

"But it's all about doing it at the right time," said Johnson. "And, hopefully, the right time — this time — is the Olympic Games."