Brent Hayden won bronze in the 100-metre freestyle Wednesday for Canada's first swim medal of the 2012 Summer Games.
After touching the wall in 47.80 seconds, Hayden turned, rose out of the water almost to his waist to see the scoreboard and then slapped his right hand into the water with joy.
"There are so many times when you can dream of something, but a million out of a million and one times it won't come true," Hayden said. "This was one of the things that I was very fortunate as a human being to have happen to me."
American Nathan Adrian out-touched James Magnussen for gold in 47.52, followed by the Australian in 47.53.
Hayden grappled with emotion and a complaining back in the hours prior to his race. The three-time Olympian required three spinal adjustments from his medical team to address his discomfort.
The Mission, B.C., swimmer is a world champion and world silver medallist in the distance, but was about to swim in his first Olympic final in three tries.
"I just couldn't help feeling like 'The best day of my life feels like the worst day of my life right now,"' he explained. "I woke at 6 a.m. and my heart pounding because I was thinking about the race.
"It took me awhile to turn that off and fall back asleep. All throughout the day I kept having these moments where I'd kind of start to think about the race and my heart would start thumping and I thought 'I've got to stay calm, I've got to stay calm."'
At 28, Hayden was more than three years older than Cesar Cielo, the next eldest in the final.
The two veterans went out quickly with Hayden second to the Brazilian at the 50-metre split. But Adrian and Magnussen went eyeball to eyeball in the fourth and fifth lanes and closed hard. Hayden kept contact in the seventh lane.
"I kind of had the urge to kiss the starting block because I just never knew I could love Lane 7 so much," he said. "Tonight was (about) digging down deep into my soul.
"It was all about finding my inner strength and feeding off my fiancee's vibes from the stands."
A week after the closing ceremonies in London, Hayden will marry Nadina Zarifeh in Lebanon. He met the Lebanese-Canadian at the University of British Columbia where Hayden trains.
Hayden is the first Canadian man to win an Olympic medal in the 100-metre freestyle. The man who last swam in a final, International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound, hung the bronze around Hayden's neck. Pound was sixth in the 1960 Olympics.
Hayden's medal boosted Canada's swimmers. While talking to reporters later, he was high-fived by teammate Martha McCabe, who qualified for Thursday's 200-metre breaststroke final.
The start was the difference for Hayden. He's worked with biomechanist Alan Wrigley and South African sprinter Roland Schoeman, considered one of the best off the blocks in the business, to become more explosive on his dive and opening strokes.
The group B2ten paid for the installation of starting blocks at UBC. Those blocks are the same model as the ones at the Aquatic Centre in London.
"The start was everything," Hayden said. "Well, maybe not everything, but for the first 25 metres it was everything.
"I learned a lot over the last two years. If I stuck to what I learned and not freak out in the moment and try something really different then the start was going to be OK."
If this Olympic Games is Hayden's last competition, it's a storybook ending. He's finally captured the medal he should have won four years ago in Beijing.
"He's got a set now of medals from every single championship and he's been on the podium in every single major championship that there is, right?" said coach Tom Johnson. "A pretty good athlete."
Hayden tied for gold at the 2007 world championships, but was hampered by back problems in the weeks leading up to the Olympics in Beijing the following year.
He then miscalculated how fast he had to swim in the semifinals in Beijing. Hayden held back a little for a relay at night and it cost him a place in the final.
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. It also shook Hayden up emotionally.
Among Hayden's tattoos is a combination of three stars and swirls on his torso. The stars represent his mind, body and soul amid turbulence.
"There was no pressure. Beijing was pressure," he said. "This time was about maturity and making sure I'm doing what I've got to do in my lane."
Hayden's not done racing in London either. He has the 50-metre heats Thursday morning and the men's 4x100 relay on Friday.
He explained the pause before his celebration in the pool Wednesday as a matter of poor eyesight.
"My eyes don't see so good. I wear glasses," Hayden said. "At the world championships in '07, I couldn't tell if it was a one or a seven.
"This time I couldn't tell if it was a three or an eight. I was taking my time for a second because I didn't want to get all super-excited for eighth place and look like an idiot."
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