Perhaps the only thing Aiden Hayes and his coach, Kent Nicholson, see differently when it comes to the pool is the natural talent Hayes brings to it.
“Eighth grade and freshman year,” Hayes said, “I had no idea what I was doing.”
Then, Hayes didn’t want to break records, didn’t want to dominate, didn’t want to become one of the nation’s fastest swimmers before exiting high school. Or, if he did, it was peripheral.
He just wanted to be a part of it. He just wanted to be a part of Norman North’s program.
He’d watched Justin Wu lead the Timberwolves to state championships before heading off to Harvard in 2015 and he’d watched James Dyer win a bunch of individual state titles and lead North to a state runner-up finish in 2017.
“Just watching them and seeing how the atmosphere of the high school team worked, that was the only thing I cared about,” Hayes said. “Swimming is an individual sport, but swimming as an individual isn’t nearly as fun as swimming for your team.”
If Hayes’ capabilities were clear, it was lost on him. He wasn’t that guy.
Unless he was that guy.
“I think he’s a prodigy,” Nicholson said. “He didn’t start swimming until he was like 11. From the time he was like 11, it was on.”
Nicholson doesn’t want to offer the wrong idea. All of that natural ability must be harnessed, exploited, pushed and mined and Hayes has gone deep within himself to do all of those things, too.
“There’s no questioning his commitment to the sport,” Nicholson said. “He’s definitely had to sacrifice, no doubt about it. He has some talent to be sure, but he hasn’t leaned on it.”
Hayes has his own way of putting it.
“The more you make it suck right now, the faster you’re going to be in the end,” he said. “Just putting yourself in uncomfortable situations in training will separate you.”
So maybe Nicholson saw potential Hayes couldn’t. It makes sense.
Hayes was just a kid.
He’s no longer just a kid.
He is, in fact, one of the nation’s fastest swimmers.
In June, he’ll be at the Olympic Trials, which makes sense given his 1:58.33 in the 200 meter butterfly, swam last month at the TYR Pro Series, less than 8 seconds off the world record and the second fastest American time in a calendar year.
That race was in Richmond, Virginia. The trials will be in Omaha, Nebraska.
Before they arrive, Hayes has a pretty big meet at Jenks Aquatic Center.
“The faster you get, some meets get smaller,” Hayes said. “But I can say for a fact that after four years, high school state maintains its excitement and energy.”
Good thing, because his last state meet begins today.
• • •
The North boys finished third behind Bartlesville a year ago and might not hate finishing third this time around, too, though they’d prefer second.
“It’s a numbers game and they go four deep in every event,” said Nicholson, referencing host Jenks, which everybody believes, barring catastrophe, will repeat as state champion.
The T-Wolves, though, are confident.
They weren’t sure they’d win their regional meet on Feb. 6 in Edmond but they did, kind of running away with it, scoring 322 points to Edmond Memorial’s 256, Shawnee’s 247 and Edmond North’s 222.
Nicholson, of course, is right. There’s strength in numbers, in depth.
The top 16 in each event score points for their team and a point here, three points there and five points there, event to event to event, add up quickly.
But there is all kinds of strength, too, in one swimmer when that swimmer is Aiden Hayes.
“He’s without a doubt the fastest kid to ever come out of Norman,” Nicholson plainly said, knowing that meant putting Hayes in front of Wu, Dyer, even Daniel Wilson,who helped lead North to last year’s second-place state finish, setting individual state records in both the 100 and 200 yard freestyle.
Hayes already owns state record marks in the 50 freestyle (20.09), 100 backstroke (47.28) and 100 butterfly (46.79) and has been a part of three state-record setting relay teams in the 200 freestyle, 200 medley and 400 freestyle.
This time, he’ll have a chance to break his own mark in the 50 freestyle and 100 butterfly, as well as a chance to break Wilson’s mark of 43.85 in the 100 freestyle.
Hayes isn’t swimming the 100 freestyle — competitors are limited to two individual races and two relays — but were he to best Wilson’s mark swimming the lead leg of the 400 relay, it would count.
Perhaps an indicator of the form Hayes will be taking into the state meet, he actually broke his own state record in the 50 freestyle at regionals, dusting the competition in 19.90. Yet, because the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association only trusts state records set at state meets, Hayes will have to do it again to make more history.
About that, Hayes is happy to set new marks, though it has little to do with him seeking immortality and everything to do with his reverence for the owners of the marks he’s chasing down.
Just as he’s held Wu and Dyer in such esteem since committing to the sport, his respect for the best to come through other programs is off the charts, too.
Ask him and he’ll rattle off names the way old sportswriters can rattle off old baseball lineups.
Knowing he’s caught them is one way of proving to himself how far he’s come.
“Getting to chase those down, especially in the earlier years of my high school career, was a big thing,” he said.
Why stop now?
Even if he’s chasing himself.
• • •
There’s a video on YouTube of Hayes finishing second in the 100 butterfly at the Speedo Winter Juniors in Seattle in December of 2019.
You can find a link to it in an article at swimswam.com published almost 10 months ago, the one proclaiming Hayes to be the No. 1 2021 swimming recruit in the nation.
Hayes, who’s headed to North Carolina State, after an Olympic trip to Tokyo or not, lost that day to Ethan Hu, who’s now in his second semester at Stanford. Wilson, believe it or not, now swimming in SEC waters at Missouri, finished third. Yet, the thing about the video is actually two things.
One, Hayes’ time. He finished in 46.01, almost four-fifths of a second faster than the state record he posted two months later at last year’s state meet.
Two, he needed just five strokes to get to the far wall and six to get back to the near one. He covered a majority of the 50-yard pool in both directions underwater, after diving in from one side and pushing off the wall on the other.
It’s insane to watch.
For Hayes, it may be more a lifestyle than sport.
“It’s not an easy sport to train for,” he said. “It’s four hours a day, minimum, six days a week, 365 days a year …
“Coming up on the Olympic Trials, I won’t have a break until it’s over, but there are moments at meets that make it absolutely worth it.”
Like the state meet.
It’s funny, because the way Hayes describes it, it can sound like it all runs together, one meet to the next, the unending training in between.
It may sound all the same, but Hayes knows it’s not. What’s happening today and Thursday at Jenks is the end of a big chapter of Hayes’ swimming life.
“This entire senior year, these last two weeks, we keep looking at each other like, ‘Wow, this thing is really almost over,’” he said.
He’s talking about Nicholson, his coach at North, his Sooner Swim Club coach and, if for some reason Hayes would have matriculated at Norman High rather than North, Nicholson would have been his coach there, too.
Nicholson wears many hats, most of them poolside.
It’s not even like Hayes and Nicholson have just one more ride together. It’s not like they’re exiting each other’s lives after the state meet. Indeed, Nicholson may tutor Hayes until he swims his last competitive stroke. But it won’t be the same.
“He’s just been great to work with,” Nicholson said. “The things he’s been able to do, for a coach, it’s so much fun to see how fast he is, to see those races.”
In the high school pool, Aiden Hayes has just a few more left.
“You want to go out with a bang,” he said.
Might as well.