By John Lohn
CRANBURY, New Jersey, December 6. CAN the news get much worse for the Australian male contingent? First, the Aussie women have excelled to such a degree that the men have become an afterthought in a swimming-crazed country. Second, Ian Thorpe decided to give retirement a try. Now, Grant Hackett is dealing with shoulder woes to his non-surgically repaired limb.
At the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, the Aussie men were sensational on their home turf, claiming gold in the 400 and 800 freestyle relays. The victory in the shorter relay arrived over the United States, at the time viewed as an untouchable force in the event. For good measure, Thorpe won the 400 free and Grant Hackett blazed to gold in the 1,500 free.
These days, though, the Australian men are struggling mightily and there doesn't seem to be any sign of a slowdown to their slip-and-slide ways. To make matters worse, Hackett withdrew from the final of the 200 free at the World Championship Trials, with his coach, Denis Cotterell, citing shoulder aches for the decision. Hackett, however, will try to get through the 800 and 1,500 free events, his primary disciplines.
In recent weeks, word from the Hackett camp has indicated that runs at his world record in the metric mile were a legitimate possibility. Instead, the questions now revolve around his fitness level and how he'll progress heading into the 2007 World Champs in Melbourne. Hackett will likely race the 400, 800 and 1,500 free events in Melbourne and this week's problems could be nothing more than a minor setback. But, if Hackett remains off his game, that scenario would be a knockout blow for Australia on the male side.
At the 2005 World Champs, there was little to get excited about beyond Hackett, who set a world record in the 800 free and won three individual titles. Even with Matt Welsh continuing to win backstroke gold at the national level, he isn't the same swimmer who once ranked among the world's elite. Simply, Welsh is no longer a threat to medal in the 100 and 200 races on the international stage.
So, where do the Aussies look? For present-day hopes, Eamon Sullivan and Brenton Rickard are the main guys. Sullivan has been improving steadily in the sprint-free events, but there's has been no clue that he has what it takes to medal in major competition, i.e. Olympics or World Champs. As for Rickard, he certainly has the goods to medal in the 100 breaststroke at a major meet, but he remains light years behind American Brendan Hansen, the world-record holder.
For the time being, the Aussie Swimming community has every right to be concerned over the future of its male crew. It just lost its No. 1 star in Thorpe and Hackett is far from his peak form. At least for Aussie fans, they have plenty to cherish on the female side.