Long before they were Olympic swimmers, Savannah King and Brent Hayden were kids taunted by bullies.
Hayden, who retired last year after wining a bronze medal in the 100-metre freestyle at the London Summer Games, and King, who competed at two Olympics, both tell a similar story. They were targeted because they were different. They were put down so someone else could feel strong.
"Strangely enough I was being bullied because I was a swimmer," said Hayden, 29, who was born in Maple Ridge, grew up in Mission, and swam for the UBC Thunderbirds.
"It was the Speedos. Kids wanted to make fun of the Speedos," he said.
King, 20, was born in Toronto, grew up in Vernon and still swims for the Thunderbirds. On Saturday in Calgary she was named the Canadian Interuniversity Sport female swimmer of the year. She also took the honour in 2012. The T-birds won the CIS National Championships and King won individual gold in two freestyle events.
"Growing up I was quite a large kid," she told the Courier. "I was a little bit roly-poly. I had a short boy haircut. I was bullied when I was in elementary school.
"Because I was a swimmer people would always say, 'When are you going to the Olympics?' They'd make fun of me for being so involved in one thing, not being able to participate in all the events."
The verbal and psychological torment Hayden faced almost caused him to quit swimming.
"There was a point that the bullying got so bad that I begged my parents not to sign me up for the [swim] team anymore," he said. "I couldn't stand going to school and having these kids make fun of me for wearing Speedos and call me all sorts of homosexual slurs."
Hayden credits his parents for giving him the strength to continue.
"My parents signed me up anyway," he said. "I was grateful because I truly loved to swim. I learned for myself that I wasn't going to let these individuals take something away from me that I loved to do.
"That probably gave me more resolve to be better at it."
Last week Vancouver tennis star Rebecca Marino, 22, said she was stepping away from the sport due to depression. She has cut ties from social media because of the criticisms she received.
King used the taunts and hurtful comments as fuel.
"I put any effort or anger I would build up from that into my sport," she said. "I really used it as a therapeutic technique."
Hayden now helps at training camps for young swimmers. When speaking, he delivers a strong anti-bullying message.
"I have a really positive message," he said. "I was once a little kid sitting in an assembly. Somewhere along the way I got inspired. I'm hoping if I can get out there and pass my message on to as many kids as possible, I will inspire a kid."
King also offers a message to people who are being bullied. "Don't let it affect anything else in your life," she said. "Just kind of realize the things you are being bullied about aren't going to matter in the long run. You are going to be a different person when you grow up. If you are being bullied for your looks, you're not going to look that way your whole life."
Brenda Morrison, an anti-bullying expert at Simon Fraser University, said by speaking out Hayden and King are effective weapons in the fight against bullying.
"Stories are very powerful mechanisms to entice change and inspire people," said Morrison. "Sometimes people who go on to do great things have overcome adversity in different ways. That can be a very powerful message to young people." [email protected]
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