By Stephen J. Thomas
SYDNEY, March 22. UNRIVALLED distance king Grant Hackett must get the top billing on the basis of his arduous schedule at the Australian titles starting today.
He will swim on every day of the eight-day meet here at the Sydney Aquatic Centre. He will compete in the 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1500 freestyle events, which will require him to swim heats and semi-finals in the 100 and 200, not to mention a couple of club relays.
However, one of the highlights of the meet will undoubtedly come tonight when Hackett goes head-to-head with world record-holder Ian Thorpe in the 400 freestyle. Thorpe has been unbeaten in this event since the '98 World Champs when as a 15-year-old he surged past Hackett to snatch gold.
Hackett is confident of a strong showing and feels his recent improvements over short distances will stand him in good stead in the final 50, where Thorpe is so powerful. Hackett says he will probably need to beat his PR (3:42.51) to give him a chance to beat Thorpe and push towards Thorpe's WR 3:40.08.
Hackett will race Thorpe in the 100 and 200 free but it is the 800 free where he will be aiming to beat Thorpe, even though Thorpe will not be in the race! Hackett told SwimInfo he is quietly confident he can break the 7:40 barrier in the 800. He clocked 7:40.34 at the 2001 World Champs behind Thorpe’s WR 7:39.16.
"Although Ian has skipped the race, in my mind I will be racing the world record so he will still be there."
Ian Thorpe is also confident of "doing personal bests" in his events which raise the potential of world record swims in the 200 and 400 and world class performances in the 100 free and his 'new' event, the 200 IM. Thorpe has already clocked a very swift 1:56.00 (WR 1:54.65) in January during the short course season over the IM distance.
Thorpe will race world short course champ Ashley Callus for the 100 free title. Callus, who has been struggling with illness for some months, took second behind Thorpe at the Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacs last year.
Fly specialist and 50 world record-holder, Geoff Huegill will start as the hot favorite in the 50 and 100 fly after considering giving the sport away after the competitive season last year. His main competition will come from Adam Pine with Michael Klim and Scott Miller out with injury.
Triple Olympic medalist and 100 back world champ, Matt Welsh will be looking to continue his domination of the backstroke events and expect Sydney based breaststroke specialist Jim Piper to make a strong showing.
In the women's events, the meet has been weakened by injury and illness. Giaan Rooney has shelved thoughts of retirement and announced she will swim the 50-100 backstroke events. However the world champ over 200 free will be under some pressure to also swim the 200 with the news that Petria Thomas has a dislocated shoulder and will miss the World Champs.
Thomas, a key member of the Aussie freestyle and medley teams indicated she will at least swim the 100 fly here before undergoing surgery in April. Olympian Clementine Stoney, the 200 backstroke title-holder for the past two years, has announced she will not swim at the meet. Stoney has been struggling with a debilitating virus that has not allowed her to train consistently for several months.
On the positive side, expect a very strong showing from 21-year-old Elka Graham in the 200-400 double. Graham has been 'looking the goods' these past few months since switching to new coach Brian Sutton. The freestyle sprints will be very competitive with Pan Pac medalists Jodie Henry, Alice Mills and veteran Sarah Ryan up against rising star Lisbeth Lenton.
In the fly sprints, expect good performances from Lenton and Nicole Irvine with places in the World Champs team wide open.
Olympic breaststroke silver medalist Leisel Jones looks in fine form and will attempt to make the 400 IM a additional event on her program with next year's Athens Olympics in mind. The 17-year-old has been gradually improving her IM, but will face tough competition from fellow Olympian Jenny Reilly this week.