CAN GRANT HACKETT?
Fully recovered from the health woes that plagued him during last year’s Olympics, and now breathing down the neck of the world’s fastest man, Grant Hackett speaks to JENI PAYNE about motivation in the pool, the challenges ahead of him and the people this sporting icon most admires
A chronic chest infection would have most of us under the covers, sipping lemony drinks, begging leave of work and looking for sympathy. But Grant Hackett competed with one in the most grueling race of the swimming schedule at the pinnacle of athletic achievement, and won. In fact, last European summer, Hackett defended his Olympic 1500m freestyle title and also won silver medals in the 400m freestyle and the 4x200m freestyle relay.
He has now won the 2000 and 2004 Olympic titles, the 1998, 2001, and 2003 world championships, the 1998 and 2002 Commonwealth Games titles, and the 1997, 1999, and 2002 Pan Pacific Championships.
With the Athens win under his belt, Hackett has joined an elite group of just five Aussies to have defended an Olympic title: Dawn Fraser (1956-60-64), Murray Rose (1956-60), Kieren Perkins (1992-96), and Ian Thorpe (2000-04).
He currently owns the world record, and now sits alongside Perkins and Salnikov as one of the best 1500m swimmers in history.
The two weeks in Athens might have taken a tremendous toll on his health, but the 24-year old doesn’t want to dwell on it.
“I didn’t feel fantastic, but I just pushed myself to the absolute limit. I wanted to win so badly. That’s part of what we do. It’s a test of character. Sometimes you’ve just got to do the job regardless of the situation or how you feel, and I did that.”
Mentally recovered from the hype and heroism of the Games, Hackett says he is “just taking it easy over the next few months”, concentrating on mending his health and spending the time pre-World Championships (Montreal, July 2005) on the promotional circuit, speaking at sponsor events, lunches and charity functions – as well as catching up with friends and family and watching DVDs.
Then there’s the Law degree at Bond University. (Most 20-somethings would find that enough in itself!)
“It has to be flexible, since I miss a lot of weeks with training and travel and I’m probably teaching myself about 50% of the time, but I think it’s important to be educated. The brain has to be as fit as the body. Plus it’s my dose of normality to go to uni.”
When swimming is no longer first on his list of priorities, Hackett says he would be keen to open the other doors afforded him by his high profile and dedication to studies.
“I don’t want to be a lawyer, but I wouldn’t mind getting into business, property development and the media.” But for now, it’s home and family. “My family is everything to me. I tend to travel in small chunks of between one and five weeks, but I miss them a lot. Even if they come with me, I’d be lucky to see them once, since the team is locked off for security. But it helps to know they’re there.”
For a busy man, Hackett is generous with his time. One of the first places this Miami Dolphins Swim Club member visited on his return was the pool. In all likelihood still jet-lagged, and partied-out from the celebrations, he popped in to show the kids his medals.
“It was weird. I swim with these kids every single day of my life, then, suddenly after the Games, I was a different person. It won’t be long though when I’m back in the pool and it’s all back to normal.”
Loving the Gold Coast climate and lifestyle, Hackett says there’s nowhere else he’d rather live and train and surmises that the environment could have something to do with the success of
“We have so much sunshine. It’s sunny and warm for about eight months of the year so mentally and physically it’s a lot easier to train compared to the pool at the AIS in Canberra, where it can be minus-six in the mornings.
“We have great facilities and, logistically, it’s easy to get around.”
To unwind, Hackett likes nothing better than to jet ski with mates, watch movies and just hang out. Does public attention ever get in the way of just hanging out?
“People do come up to me and say ‘congratulations’ or whatever, but that’s part of the package and you accept that.”
What’s harder to accept is the intrusion by the media.
“Being in the public eye, your relationships come under scrutiny as does your behaviour. Your private life is under pressure and magazines are constantly speculating . . . but the positives, enjoying what I do and the rewards of swimming, far outweigh the negatives. Sometimes you’re in a bad mood and the attention gets a bit much, but you just have to be courteous.”
Regular folk, and even the majority of athletes, would be envious of the streamlined Hackett. Not only does he have no worries about losing form over his rest period, he actually has to eat more to make sure he doesn’t lose too much weight.
“Yeah, I have to try and put on some pounds. I guess when you’re training hard you eat a lot. When I stop, I don’t feel as hungry.”
A return to the rigours of training looms and, at his peak, Hackett will put in around five to seven hours per day, six days a week.
Most people would marvel at the fortitude required to “chase the black line” day in, day out but, Hackett says, the motivation never ceases. “I’m always looking for new challenges. There are small stepping stones along the way to major events and milestones and, because I’m passionate about it, every day I can take it to a new level.
“When you’ve finished training, there’s a great sense of achievement. It takes discipline and that gives you a certain pride. Then there’s the fitness, which feels good too.”
Heralded as the second-fastest man in history by commentators at the Telstra World Championships, Hackett mounted the blocks at Sydney Olympic Park two weeks ago without the threat of his rival, team-mate and fastest man, Ian Thorpe, who’s on a one year break in the lead up to Beijing. “Whether Ian is here or not, there is certainly interest in the sport, he said to media at the event. “There’s a lot of talented athletes on the team. The team is respected as a whole, not a one-man band.”
In 100% health, and content with his 11 weeks of preparation after the Athens Games, Hackett swam the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m at the titles over the eight days of competition, claiming first-place in Thorpe’s pet event, the 400m, and guaranteeing a berth in the team for the World Championships in Montreal in July. The next three years in the lead up to China’s Olympic Games, Hackett is looking forward to minimal travel: “The Commonwealth Games are in Melbourne in 2006, then the World Championships in 2007 are there too. I’m glad there won’t be so much travel. ”Like most athletes, other than a few precious days off during events, even in the most exotic of locations, Hackett’s time is spent between the hotel and the pool. He describes travel for competition in terms of “being a waiter in a fabulous restaurant”. “One day I’ll be able to eat there and enjoy it, but for now . . .”
Acknowledged as an Australian icon, even at such a young age, Hackett is quick to nominate his own list of those he admires most. “My mum and dad, and coach Dennis Cottrell,” he says without hesitation. “You can look up to other sportspeople and high profile people for their achievements, but I don’t really know them. “We are all products of our environments. My family is where I look to for my strength. Their values and attitudes have contributed most to my success. They’re the people that have influenced me most.”As for Beijing, will he be there? “Definitely!” Will he contest the 400m against Thorpe? “Wait and see. I’m going to take it as it comes. My priority is the 1500m.” It’s likely he’s thinking ahead to 2008 when he has the chance to become the first man in history to win three successive 1500m Olympic titles. No doubt, the entire country will rise before dawn to watch him try.