Canada's swim team suffers one-two punch
BEIJING - It was like a one-two punch.
The Canadian swim team was staggered Wednesday by a pair of disappointing blows.
First Brent Hayden, the reigning world champion in the 100-metre freestyle, failed to qualify for the final. Then the 4x200-metre relay team, often touted as the best bet to end Canada's eight-year Olympic medal drought in the pool, finished fifth.
Canada's swimmers knew winning a medal in Beijing wouldn't be easy, but they probably didn't think it would be this hard.
"I know we wanted to have something hanging around our necks," said a stoic Hayden.
"We're still climbing a mountain. You can't just start at the bottom and magically appear on the top. We're going to keep climbing. We're always there but it's a tough climb."
Canada's last hope of putting a swimmer on the podium could rest on the shoulders of Mike Brown of Perth, Ont., who will race in the final of the 200-metre breaststroke Thursday.
Pierre Lafontaine, Swimming Canada's chief executive officer, said being slapped down in the pool again shows the Canadians need more international experience.
"We have to put our swimmers against the best in the world more and more often," said Lafontaine. "We have to go around the world with our best group and go against the Europeans, the Americans, the Australians.
"You're talking about budget, you're talking about time away from school. I think we have to do that. We're still knocking on the door."
Julia Wilkinson of Stratford, Ont., also missed a chance for a medal, finishing seventh in the final of the women's 200-metre individual medley.
Had Wilkinson, a 21-year-old competing in her first Olympics, won a medal it would have been gravy. Hayden and the relay team were the meat and potatoes.
The 4x200 relay had won medals at the last two world aquatic championships. Hayden, of Mission B.C., Brian Johns, of Victoria, and Andrew Hurd of Cambridge, Ont., were part of the team that finished fifth at the Athens Olympics. Colin Russell of Oshawa, Ont., helped the team win silver at the 2005 world championships in Montreal.
The talent was there. The expectations were high. That's why the reality of what happened stung so much.
"We were in a position to race for that medal," said Johns, 26, a three-time Olympian likely competing in his last Games. "Unfortunately there were a couple of teams that executed a little bit better than we did."
Lafontaine said Olympic medals are earned, not wished for.
"I think (we are) disappointed because we had dreams," said Lafontaine, who was hired after Canada failed to win a medal at the 2004 Athens Games. "It seemed like lit was going to be easy, but we could see nothing is ever really easy.
"Sometimes you try too hard because you want it so bad. We can't be chasing medals. We've got to keep fighting. When you try too hard you tighten up and you don't get what you want."
Hayden offered no excuse for his perform in the 100 metres. His time of 48.20 seconds was .36 slower than what he swam in Tuesday night's preliminaries.
"It just came down to I didn't go fast enough," he said.
Hayden hurt his back doing a photo shoot early in the year. That hampered his training and he never swam a world-class time until Tuesday night's heats.
If it's any consolation, Filippo Magnini, the Italian Hayden tied for the gold medal at the world championships, also failed to make the final.
Australia's Eamon Sullivan was fastest in the semifinals. His time of 47.05 was a world record, breaking the mark of 47.20 that France's Alain Bernard swam in the first semifinal.
In the relay final, it was the U.S. and then everybody else.
Led by swimming phenomenon Michael Phelps, the American team of Ryan Lochte, Ricky Berens and Peter Vanderkaay won in a time of 6:58.56, slicing about five seconds of their old world record.
For Phelps it was his second gold medal of the day and fifth of the meet. His goal is to win a record eight.
Hayden, looking to redeem himself after the 100, did a hard swim in the third leg of the race that moved Canada into fourth place. But Hurd, swimming the anchor, couldn't catch the Australians for bronze.
"I never gave up," said Hurd. "Brent came on those guys in the third leg like a freight train. He gave me a big boost -- unfortunately, I came up a little bit shy."
Canada's time of 7:05.77 was a national record, but over seven seconds behind the Americans.
A team of Johns, Rick Say of Victoria, Adam Sioui of Trenton, Ont., and Hurd swam 7:08.04 Tuesday night to put Canada in the final.
Lafontaine said the decision to replace Say and Sioui was based on their times during the preliminaries.
"It would have been really hard to justify any other way," he said.
The Olympic loss could be the changing of the guard on the relay team.
Say, 29, probably won't compete at another Games. Hurd, 25, hasn't decided yet.
Hayden, 24, plans to swim until the 2012 London Olympics. Russell is 23, Sioui 26. Waiting in the wings are young swimmers like Richard Hortness, 23, and Joel Greenshields, 20.
Johns said another four years of swimming will give the team more experience.
"I don't think we're that far away," he said. "We just need a little bit more time. A lot of it is going to be experience."
The last Canadian swimmer to climb on the podium was Calgary's Curtis Myden, who won bronze in the 400 individual medley at Sydney.
The program has shown sparks of life in Beijing. Canadians have qualified for six finals. The team has broken 17 national records and set 24 personal bests.
In Athens, Canadians reached just three finals and few swam to their potential.