SwimInfo's Craig Lord met up with Aussie distance king Grant Hackett recently when the world record-holder passed through London. Here's Craig's report:
By Craig Lord
LONDON, March 11. I was ready for him this time, though my fingers hurt only marginally less than they had the first time we shook hands. Grant Hackett, aquatic ironman with an iron fist, smiles broadly as I retrieve my wounded paw with a slight grimace: "A firm hand – something my mum taught me."
Taken by visions of Mrs. Hackett holding me in a headlock, I was thankful that there are so many good things to write about her son, whose grip on the 1,500 meter freestyle for almost eight years has been vice-like. Unbeaten over the distance since he first won the Pan Pacific title in 1997, Hackett has collected an enviable treasury of two Olympic crowns, six world titles – three long and three short course – and two Commonwealth golds.
In retaining his world crown in 2001, he took a sledgehammer to the world record to leave it at 14:34.56. Beamonesque? One that will last for years to come (especially since his 2003 world title and 2004 Olympic crowns came in times almost 10 seconds below his best)?
"The 1500 can go into the teens," Hackett asserts with a calm determination that suggests sincerity, not spin. Note that he said "into the teens" not "to the teens, namely Larsen Jensen and Great Britain's David Davies who had Australian hearts thudding in Athens. More on them later. Hackett meant 14:19 – that sort of teen.
"I believe that absolutely. I'm a miles better swimmer than a 14:34. My training times comparatively have improved a lot since I did that time in 2001. It's just a matter of getting it all together, in terms of the taper, the day – that's the big thing."
He did not quite "get it all together" in Athens if the clock is to be believed, though in hindsight his victory in the fastest 1,500 meter race ever was truly awesome: unbeknown to Hackett and his coach, Denis Cotterell, he competed with part of his left lung collapsed.
"It was due to the bout of mild pneumonia I had at the beginning of the year," Hackett explains. "I had to train with it because the Olympics were coming up. I didn't realiz the severity of the infection. My general well-being just wasn't there. I just got too keen, over-trained and trained when I had a chest infection and ended up with mild pneumonia and had to deal with that from then on."
It was not until he returned home that Hackett discovered just how ill he had been. "The specialist injected me with iodine and found that part of the left lung was actually deflated because it had been blocked with mucus for so long. There was fluid on my lung. It was a bit of a shock," says Hackett on a flying visit to Britain, where he has his suits tailor-made by Speedo. "I'm a hundred percent better now, no sign of long-term trouble."
Nor was there any sign of trouble during the 400 meter free on the first day of racing in Athens, when Hackett fought stroke for stroke with Ian Thorpe over a distance that has proved a more complex challenge for the champion and world record holder since he added the 100 meter sprint to his training and race schedule.
Thorpe retained his crown by just .26 over Hackett, the tightest race between the two men in a long-course pool – every one of which has ended in a Thorpe victory. "It was so close, said the 1,500 meter champion. "To get within .3 of him and then to come within .1 and get the silver in the 4×200 relay, well … it's a little hard to swallow. Sometimes you feel like you've lost a gold not won a silver."
After so many attempts to get past his nemesis, could he see a day when he might finally defeat Thorpe over 400 meters? Too wise to the worth of his teammate to make rash promises of future conquest and too much the competitor to utter modest self-denials, Hackett replies: "There are things that I haven't achieved yet and the 400 is certainly one of them: not to necessarily win but to improve on my best time by a fair margin and really push down where Ian's gone before."
Replace the word Ian with Grant in that last part of the sentence and the comment might well have fallen from the mouths of Jensen and Davies. They have work to do, although the weakened chest perhaps served only to level the field slightly, when you consider the Queenslander's massive natural advantage, a lung capacity of 12.6 liters (compared to 4 or less for most mortals, 6 for most athletes and 8 for Miguel Indurain, a cyclist famed for the bounty of his bellows).
It is an attitude you might expect of Hackett, who likes to turn potential soft spots into strenghts: of his seven-year unbeaten record and the defense of the Olympic title against rivals ready to make big strides forward, he simply says "they had everything to prove, not me," while the $1 million reward for knocking the king off his throne – for the American, not the Brit, naturally – stirs him to say: "The money didn't matter. I used it to my advantage. I put the figure on the wall in my room and when it was hard to get up some mornings I reminded myself what others were doing to try to beat me and my heart leapt from my chest."
That chest, by the time Hackett had raced the 400, 200 and 4 x 200 relay in Athens, had been "aggravated" enough to make the champion wonder about the challenge ahead. "I remember speaking to Ian and Pieter (Van den Hoogenband), two other men having to back up, to defend," Hackett recalled. "They said they found it hard to win the second time round. Even though they'd done so well in the four years in between – Ian had done his best 200 and 400 after Sydney – for them to win the second time was really difficult. I got a first-hand understanding of that in my own race."
And what a race it was. Only two men – Kieren Perkins and Hackett – had swum inside 14:50 before – and never in the same race. Now, three men were poised to breach that barrier in the same battle that Hackett won ultimately on the strength of his superior sprinting speed over the first and last 100 meters.
In the middle 1,300, he clocked eight of the fastest 50-meter splits, to nine each for Jensen and Davies. With Hackett stopping the clock at 14:43.40, Jensen at 14:45.29 and Davies at 14:45.95 (4.41 inside the European record established by Germany's Jorg Hoffmann) the battle was split by 2.45.
The devil, for all three men, is in the detail: over the full 1,500 meters, Hackett's average comes out at 29.45 per 50 meters, to 29.51 for Jensen and 29.53 for Davies. That's how close it was. Take away the first and last hundred and Jensen comes out on top at 29.62 per 50, with Davies at 29.69 and Hackett at 29.70.
No wonder Australian sports fans and gamblers found themselves clutching the edges of their seats for what is known Down Under as a "two-Corona" race (because you can sink two tinnies before the finish). Money once seen as safe, on the strength of Australia's one-two finishes over 1,500 meters at the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Games, looked less certain as the race progressed: Hackett started out the fastest lapper over the first 250 meters but between the 450-meter mark and 1,000, he had the fastest split just once.
With 100 meters to go, Jensen was just 0.16 behind his quarry, with Davies 1.41 adrift. The true predator then showed his teeth: a 56.08 last 100 meters, that kissed goodbye to Jensen's million-dollar ambition. The American simply could not handle that turn of speed at the end of a truly breathtaking performance and faded with a 57.81 split. Davies stormed home in 57.06.
Under immense pressure, the experienced Hackett had held his nerve: "I knew they were coming at me. I just tried to keep a cool head and stuck to my race plan. It was the first time in eight and a half years I've had people near me…but I knew I had the greater speed."
Hackett's ability to explode off the blocks and finish the race with an aggressive sprint was one of the keys that opened the door to a sub-14:35 swim. Could he see a day when Jensen and Davies might be able to race his way?
"Those guys are 19 going on 20 so if they're not swimming like I do now, they're never going to. They swim the race differently. When you get to 19 or 20, it's ingrained, the pattern is set. I've been swimming in that race that way since I was winning national age-groups. I always went out hard, that was the natural thing to do for me. I don't even train like that, it just happens in the race, it always has, it's just something I can do.
"Kieren Perkins could do that. But those guys are back-end swimmers. They will never have the speed while they focus on the 1500. I think they will swim it better if they hold a consistent pace and they will come home very well, very fast, but in terms of going out fast, it would be going against the grain for them now. They're racing the way they train. If they were 15 or 16 years old, I'd say I don't know what might be possible because you can change things around, but at their age…". Hackett shakes his head.
In Athens, Jensen and Davies "swam a perfect swim for the way they swim it. They swam a negative split, they didn't go out too hard, they controlled their situation. It was very well planned." Their efforts had also served to enhance his own reputation: "It was great for the 1,500 meters as well as those young guys. Even back home it's made people appreciate the event a lot more and get a bit more of an understanding about it, about what it takes."
For Hackett it has been about what it takes to stay at the top for more than eight years. "Longevity is significant in sport," says Hackett. "But first and foremost you concentrate on what you're doing because you can't control what others are doing. People ask me what it's like to be have that kind of dominance of an event. People just expect me to be easily able to win three Olympics in a row. I always say there's going to be someone who comes along and swims down to the times I do. It's inevitable.
"You set a standard and that allows people to remove a limit in their brain. Someone is bound to come up to you and the longer you have that dominance the more likely it is that someone is bound to step up and get to your level."
There is plenty of opportunity for Jensen and Davies to do just that on the road to Beijing 2008: world championships in Montreal (2005) and Melbourne (2007), Pan Pacific Championships in Asia and Commonwealth Games back in Melbourne. Could Hackett see himself attacking 14:34 every time he raced to keep the pretenders at bay? "I'll try," he laughs, adding: "I'm not afraid to lose, so regardless of where I'm at, I'll prepare the best I can and go to the meet having done all I can to prepare for it.
"I want to step forward. It's boring staying on the same spot. In that sense, having David and Larsen there, well, you know that at every meet you'll be showing up to race people who are ready and want to race fast."
Win or lose, Hackett wants to end his career still in possession of the world record. To that end, he may consider attacking the standard away from the pressure of a big event. "Maybe at some stage in the next four years, if I decide to miss one of the big ones, I'll take the chance to tackle a timed swim at a small meet."
He later adds: "I've discussed with my coach the times I'm capable of and I know I can improve on that 14:34. I don't think I'd stay in the sport if I didn't think I could go any faster. I've achieved what I wanted to achieve so now it's about finding out how fast I can go. In terms of other people getting down there too, yes, definitely, I can't see why not."
"David is a young guy, he's very focused, very disciplined. How much he improves from here will be small increments and it will be tough. The thing about David is I think he'll be fine as long as he doesn't get too excited about it and makes sure swimming isn't the only thing. For me, I've been fortunate to make a lot out of my sport, which I'm very grateful for, but I still go to University. I study law. It's a necessary diversion – 1,500 swimming is monotonous, it's a lot of hours, a lot of training. It's very hard to consistently improve. David's down at a level now that if he goes down a second or two that's a great swim, if he does a sub 14-50 again, that's awesome."
If he is complimentary about the athletic efforts of the pretenders, he sees the teenagers as having very different personalities. "They are very different people, with very different attitudes," says Hackett.
"I would always prefer to race a competitor who is humble, accepting of their competitors, a gentleman. I don't expect them to like me because we're all different. But I do expect them to have respect and be gentleman-like. If they're not, they're not, that's not my problem, people are going to think less of them if they go around with a cocky attitude and I'm not saying that about anyone in particular, just competitors full-stop."
Davies, for example, he said, was "an absolute pleasure to talk to…he's an absolute gentleman and it's a pleasure to be on the blocks beside someone like that." Praise indeed from one of the sport's great ambassadors.
It is no surprise to learn that Australia chose this intelligent and likeable diplomat to represent his country overseas. During his six-week break after Athens Hackett visited China and Hong Kong as an Olympic ambassador for Australia and Britain, where he has his suits tailor-made by Speedo in Nottingham.
Lisa Stallard, his manager at the IQ (international quarterback) agency, describes her client as "just brilliant" in his cultural role beyond the pool. "Australia and China were signing a joint agreement to work with each other, so we could be training in each other's countries, get to understand each others cultures and so on. They opened the doors to us at the Beijing Institute of Sport, the anti-doping labs and everything. They are keen to make the Beijing Games work well for them. That means understanding what makes us all tick. We also want them to be comfortable with us. We are very loud people for them – Grant will be taking that kind of message back to the team."
His busy schedule on the road and in the pool makes a viable relationship hard to come by. "I'm very, very single," says one of Australia's most eligible bachelors, with his hinterland farm overlooking some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet and an income to place him among the top 50 earning sportsmen in a sports-mad nation where 10 million have been known to tune in to televised swimming.
I profer the nightmare vision of 400 Aussie women knocking at the door. "Yeah," he says, "but it would be nice to find one good one…er, I mean, I'm not saying that they're all bad but…no, er, Aussie women are really great, no honest they are…". He'll have to dig harder than that to avoid a lynching.
His return to training in mid-November as spring turned to summer in Queensland spelled a change of regime: "During a break you might go out regularly for Saturday night drinks. I'm not a big drinker but when I'm back in training I really have to look after my body. There are no extremes – moderation is healthy. I'm already looking forward to Montreal."
No chance then that he might take out the Athens video again and slump in recognition that his time was nigh? "It motivates me," he says. "By no means does it make me have a negative thought. You always think you're doing the best you can and then all of a sudden someone comes up beside you and you find another 10 percent . That's what it's done for me. It will certainly motivate me in the next four years. Regardless of what happens in terms of results, I will be out there doing my best and I will know that those guys are doing that too.
"Their attitude of wanting to knock me off and take that title is certainly motivational for me. Every time I see the video tape of the race in Athens it almost makes me angry and makes me want to go to the swimming pool and start training again. And that's what we do – we're in a competitive world but we do sport, and that's all about competition. When an event starts to get fiercely contested it makes me hungrier."
You have all been warned…