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Hackett Calls Time On Stellar Career

Oct 27, 2008  - Craig Lord

Australia's Grant Hackett announced his retirement in Sydney this evening. The 28-year-old ironman of the pool, Olympic champion in the 1,500m freestyle in 2000 and 2004 and setter of a Beamonesque world record in 2001, made his announcement at the Australian Swimmer of the Year Awards.

"I want to set the record straight and address my fellow peers and swimmers and everyone else who has contributed to my career and tell them what sort of path I will be following from now," Hackett told the Australian media before arriving at the awards venue. 

At the ceremony the 28-year-old, who was guided to success by coach Denis Cotterell, said he was hanging up his goggles to pursue other interests because his body could no longer cope with the constant grind of training. "I have been doing this for a long time... and it is now all just a memory for me."

Hackett holds political ambitions, according to the Australian media, which reported this week that the swimmer would one day like to become a federal minister. Perhaps not the best of timing to go into banking but Hackett was also reported to be about to pursue a career in finance, having accepted a job at Westpac Banking Corp., according to a Sunday newspaper.


Highlights from Hackett's retirement speech: 

"I spoke to Ian [Thorpe] before and he said `I know what you are about about to do, so when you go up there, enjoy it, because it's a massive transition'." In a direct appeal to his younger teammates, people who had looked up to him as Captain, he said: "You want to make the most of every opportunity because one day it will turn into memories. That's what it is for me now, so embrace it, guys, embrace every opportunity you get."

He also said: "You have to know when you are done ... it does start to wear you down. Mentally and physically I think I could have kept going but emotionally getting up for those big meets is hard. It's good I have made this decision. It's a bit of a relief."

The following sums up the spirit of Hackett: "It is one-for-all, all-for one. It has to be like that, we all understand it and we all benefit from it. Some people say a swimmer goes to his blocks alone but that's only partly true. I go knowing that I have my entire team with me. I carry them in my heart and my heart leaps out of my chest." 


One of the symbols of greatness in sport is the aura of invincibility that is developed by times on the clock and time spent at the top. Grant George Hackett set records on both those scores. At the dawn of 2008, his 2001 world record of 14:34.56 in the 1,500m freestyle stood as a monument to his dominance over rivals, while his career boasted 10 years - 1997 to 2007 – of uninterrupted victories in his best event, including two Olympic titles, in 2000 and 2004. 

Hackett’s performance at the 2005 World Championships in Montreal confirmed him as the ironman of world swimming: “The Machine”, racing as the pioneer team captain of Swimming Australia, became the first swimmer to claim gold in the 400m, 800m (in a world record of 7:38.65 that eclipsed Ian Thorpe’s 2001 standard) and 1,500m freestyle, the latter marking the first time that any swimmer had won the same world title at four championships (1998-2005). 

Born at Southport on the Gold Coast, in Queensland, Hackett, boasting a lung capacity four times that of an average man, made his senior debut for Australia at 16, winning the World short-course title in the 1,500m in Gothenburg. He would not be beaten over 30 or 60 laps again until March 2007. Later in his debut year, aged 17, at the Pan Pacific Championships in Fukuoka, he won the 400m freestyle ahead of 14-year-old Thorpe (AUS), and the 1,500m in a class of his own. He would never beat Thorpe again in a long-course pool, but defeated his nemesis, by 0.63sec, in a world short-course record of 3:35.01 at the World Championships (25m) in Hong Kong.

At the World Championships in Perth, 1998, Hackett took silver behind Thorpe in the 400m, and then joined his rival in the 4x200m relay to deny the USA victory for the first time in the 25-year history of the championships. He then claimed his first global crown over 30 laps, in 14:51.70, and in September that year clocked 14:19.55 to break the World short-course record held by Kieren Perkins (AUS). In March 1999, Hackett, coached by Denis Cotterell at Miami, Queensland, set his first long-course world record, shaving 0.02sec off the 1989 standard of Giorgio Lamberti (ITA) over 200m freestyle (1:46.67) in Brisbane. His speed was significant beyond four laps: Hackett dominated the 1,500m by attacking from the start with a blistering pace that killed off his rivals early. Hackett lost the 200m record to Thorpe later that year at the Pan Pacific Championships in Sydney but gained another global mark with his teammates in the 4x200m (7:08.79).

A virus laid Hackett low and put him out of contention at Sydney 2000 until a 1,500m final alongside team-mate Kieren Perkins, defending champion a second time. Hackett attacked from the blocks and held on for a 14:48.33 victory that left him 5.26 ahead of Perkins, whose silver medal made him the first swimmer to reach the podium at three Games for the 1,500m. 

In 2001, Hackett also beat Perkins on the clock. At the World Championships in Fukuoka, he claimed silver medals behind world records set by Thorpe in the 400m (his 3:42.51 was still second fastest ever in 2008) and 800m, as well as a gold alongside Thorpe, Michael Klim and William Kirby for a 4x200m world record of 7:04.66. Then came Hackett’s Magnum opus: 14:34.56 for the 1,500m, one of the most sensational swims in history. Two years on, at the 2003 championships in Barcelona, Hackett retained the 1,500m crown a second time and added the 800m world title, while finishing second and third respectively in the 400m and 200m. 

At the Olympic Games in Athens, Hackett retained the crown in 14:43.40, with Larsen Jensen (USA) David Davies (GBR), both on 14:45, providing the closest challenge of his career as a champion. Shoulder surgery in late 2005 after his exploits at Montreal 2005 led to a lean period and long recovery. At the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne, a medal in the 400m was followed by his first 30-lap defeat in 10 years: he was 6th in a final won by Mateus Sawrymowicz (POL). A week later, Hackett married Australian singer Candice Alley. 

In 2008 he sought a record third Olympic 1,500m crown and the inaugural Olympic marathon 10km title. The marathon went by the wayside at pre-selection for Beijing in Seville, when Hackett missed the mark. But in the pool in Beijing, Hackett was magnificent and missed the historic triple by a tiny margin, as the 1,500m crown passed to Oussama Mellouli, the US-based Tunisian. 

Hackett sits at the helm of the nearly crew who took a great shot at the triple:

  • Hackett: missed gold by 0.69sec (1,500m free, 2008)
  • Alexander Popov (RUS): missed gold, silver behind VD Hoogengand, by 0.39sec (100m free, 2000)
  • Kieren Perkins (AUS): missed gold, silver behind Hackett, by 5.26sec (1,500m free, 2000)
  • Pieter Van den Hoogenband (NED): missed gold (4th, 0.08sec off podium) by 0.54sec (100m free, 2008)

Hackett will go down in history as one of the all-time greats of distance swimming and a man who had lessons in toughness to teach the world.

FROM THE ARCHIVE - a memory of Hackett, swimming ambassador

November 2004 - Craig Lord

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 he perceives a slight grimace on my face: "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 metres 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, and two Commonwealth golds. 

In retaining his world crown in 2001 he took a sledgehammer to the world record to leave it at 14mins 34.56sec. Beamonesque? Not yet, apparently. "The 1500 can go into the teens," Hackett asserts with a calm determination. Note that he says "into the teens" not "too the teens", namely Larsen Jensen (US) and David Davies (GB), who had Australian hearts thudding in Athens. More of them later. Hackett meant 14mins 19sec - 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."

He did not quite 'get it all together' on the clock in Athens, though in hindsight his victory in the fastest 1,500 metres race ever was even more awesome than it looked: unbeknown to him and his coach, Denis Cotterell, Hackett 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. I had to train with it because the Olympics were coming up. I didn't realise the severity of the infection. I just got too keen, over-trained and trained when I had a chest infection," explains Hackett, whose lung capacity, of 12.6 litres, compares 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.

The deflated lung was only discovered after Hackett returned home from Athens. "There was fluid on my lung. It was a bit of a shock," said Hackett on a flying visit to Britain, where he has his suits tailor-made by Speedo. "I'm a hundred per cent better now, no sign of long-term trouble." 

Nor was there any sign of trouble during the 400 metres on the first day of racing in Athens, when Hackett fell just 0.26sec shy of upsetting Ian Thorpe in the tightest race between the two men in a long-course pool (all ending in a Thorpe victory). "It was so close, says Hackett. "To get within 0.3sec of him and then to come within 0.1sec and get the silver in the 4x200 relay, well Ö 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 metres? 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 Ian with Grant in that sentence and it might have been uttered by Jensen and Davies. But they have work to do yet against a man who finds strength where others see weakness: of his seven-year unbeaten record and the defence of the Olympic title against the pretenders he 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 Hackett 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 4x200 metres 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 - Perkins and Hackett - had swum inside 14mins 50sec before - and never in the same race. In Athens, in a race Hackett won ultimately on the strength of his superior sprinting speed over the first and last 100 metres, three breached the barrier in the a battle split by 2.45sec, the Australian on 14mins 43.40sec, Jensen on 14:45.29 and Davies on 14:45.95 (4.41sec inside the European record established by Germany's Jorg Hoffmann when he beat then little-known Australian Kieren Perkins for the world title in Perth, Western Australia, on January 13, 1991).

The race statistics are excrutiating: in the middle 1,300m, Hackett clocked eight of the fastest 50-metre splits, to nine each for Jensen and Davies and while over the full 1,500 metres, Hackett's average was 29.45sec per 50 metres, to 29.51 for Jensen and 29.53 for Davies, in the middle 1,300 metres, Jensen wins on 29.62sec, to 29.69 for Davies and  29.70 for Hackett. That's how close it was: no wonder Australians clutched the edges of their seats throughout what is known Down Under as a "two-Corona" race (because you can sink two tinnies before the finish). 

With 100 metres to go, Jensen was just 0.16sec behind his quarry, with Davies 1.41sec adrift. Hackett then clocked 56.08sec, to Jensen's 57.81sec and Davies's 57.06sec. "I knew they were coming at me," says Hackett. "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 meÖbut I knew I had the greater speed, start and finish." Which was one of the keys that opened the door to a sub-14min 35sec 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. I've been swimming in that race that way since I was winning national age-groups. Kieren Perkins could do that. But those guys are back-end swimmers. They will never have the speed while they focus on the 1500. They'll swim it better if they hold a consistent pace and come home very fast, but in terms of going out fast, it would be going against the grain for them now."

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 metres 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."

Hackett prizes longevity but recognises his aquatic mortality: "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...the longer you have that dominance the more likely it is that someone will step up to you."

There is plenty of opportunity for Jensen and Davies to do just that before Beijing 2008: world championships in Montreal (2005) and Melbourne (2007) as well as the Pan Pacific Championships and Commonwealth Games. 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. I want to step forward. In that sense, having David and Larsen there means that at every meet I'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 and does not rule out a timed swim in the absence of pressure to achieve that aim. "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."

He rates Davies highly: "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. He'll be fine as long as he doesn't get too excited about it and makes sure swimming isn't the only thing. 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."

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, who has made no secret of the fact that has found Jensen to be "a little boastful" in the past.

"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.

It is clear that he does not have Davies in mind, as he adds: "David Davies is an absolute pleasure to talk to, I have a lot of respect for him. I hope he does well and succeeds at the level he wants to succeed at - and not at the cost of me losing. 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.

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.

Hackett's 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. "You think you're doing the best you can and then all of a sudden someone comes up beside you and you find another 10 per cent . That's what it's done for me. Their attitude of wanting to knock me off and take that title is certainly motivational. Every time I see the video tape of the race in Athens it almost makes me angry and makes me want to get to the pool. It's a competitive world and when an event starts to get fiercely contested it makes me hungrier." We have been warned.