Former distance freestyle great, Kieren Perkins, was known as “The King” in Australia during his heyday. Later, the crown belonged to world record holder Grant Hackett, who has remained undefeated in the 1500 meter free for six years… Let’s take a look at the days that Hackett ruled the pools…A tribute to a legend
The Hackett File
Name: Grant Hackett
Date of Birth: May 9, 1980
Height: 6-5 1/2 (197 cm)
Weight: 198 pounds (90 kg)
Club: Miami, Queensland
Coach: Denis Cotterell
Parents: Neville and Margaret
Pet: German Shepherd (Blade)
School: Merrimac State High School
University: Bond University (Gold Coast)
Sponsors: Audi, Pierre Cardin, Speedo, Uncle Toby’s and Westpac Bank
Event Long Course Short Course
100 meter free 50.31 48.67
200 meter free 1:45.84 (3) 1:42.48 (3)
400 meter free 3:42.51 (2) 3:34.58 (WR)
800 meter free 7:40.34 (2) 7:25.28 (WR)
1500 meter free 14:34.46 (WR) 14:10.10 (WR)
All-time performer ranking in parentheses
WR = World Record
Going back in time…
Number of sub-15-minute long course 1500s: 12
It’s Feb. 7, 1992. I was a little apprehensive about the large sign on the front gate that warns, “A large dog resides here,” but fortunately, “Blade”, Grant Hackett’s 3-year-old German shepherd, is as easy-going as his master.
Eventually, a tall, lean and tanned Hackett appeared at the door of the den of his comfortable family home on the Queensland Gold Coast of Australia, where he has lived since he was 9. At 6-5 1/2 and 198 pounds, and tailor-made for endurance swimming, he looked in the best shape of his career.
Lately, the then 22-year-old has taken a liking to a trim designer-style beard, perhaps to match his two most recent stylish European sponsors: Audi and Pierre Cardin. Certainly, Hackett had come a long way since that lanky, pimply, 16-year-old kid who won his first major international 1500 meter freestyle at the World Short Course Champs in Gothenburg, Sweden, in April 1997. Six years later, Hackett remained undefeated over the distance, a rare achievement in elite sport in that era.
His record over the 30-lap race spoke for itself. Hackett had taken Olympic gold in Sydney and two World Championship titles, including his sensational 14:34.56 in Fukuoka to smash fellow-Aussie legend Kieren Perkins’ world mark by over seven seconds. There were also three consecutive Pan Pac wins and two Commonwealth victories.
In the short course pool, Hackett had won three world titles over 1500 meters, in addition to holding the world records for the 400, 800 and 1500 meter freestyles, and he was also part of the Aussie world record 800-meter relay teams over both short and long course.
It was a particularly busy period for Hackett with the World Championship Trials just over a month away then. He logged around 65,000 meters per week over 10 sessions while trying to balance this with the considerable demands on his time from sponsors, media and public requests, all part of being at the top of his sport in this swimming-mad country.
Our interview with him, fourteen years way back, was squeezed in right after a couple of hours of much-needed rest in between sessions in the pool. I got his full attention, fortunately, when I asked him about the much awaited ‘Duel in the Pool’ to be held in Indianapolis immediately after the U.S. Nationals.
Hackett was one of the few Aussies who started as a favorite against the Yanks in this main event, although he also qualified for the 200 free with world record holder Ian Thorpe and was part of the 400 free relay team. Hackett said “We’ve got to be prepared to come back after the Trials and perform very fast away from home soil. It’s going to be very competitive and, naturally, the media will be focusing on the rivalry.”
Hackett was disappointed that the 800 relay and 400 freestyle were not in the men’s program: “We haven’t lost those two events to them for some time.” As to his own form, Hackett was confident of a strong showing in Indianapolis: “I would like to perform quicker in the 1500 than at our Trials. The last five months have gone very well for me. Since my break after Pan Pacs, I’ve seen improvements in my sprints, middle distance and distance work in training”, he said back then. This was an ominous warning to his competition, given his outstanding record the year before where only multiple world record holder Ian Thorpe finished in front of Hackett in a race longer than 100 meters.
What was particularly impressive is that his speed was definitely on the rise. Hackett swam a PR 50.31 in the 100 free at nationals to make the Aussie 400 relay team that won gold at Pan Pacs (where he split 49.05). He clocked another PR 1:45.84 in the 200 free at Pan Pacs, second behind world record holder Ian Thorpe and third all-time performer behind Thorpe and Olympic champion Pieter van den Hoogenband. Hackett also scored a convincing win over Hoogie in the 200 free by 7-tenths of a second at the FINA World Cup in Melbourne in December, when he clocked a world-leading 1:42.48.
In Hackett’s career at that time, his two biggest rivals have come from Down Under. First, there was the man known as “The King” in Australia, Kieren Perkins. Perkins won gold at two consecutive Olympics in the 1500 (Barcelona and Atlanta). He held the world record of 14:41.66 from 1994 until Hackett took the mark in 2001.
“He was a god in the sport here when I started competing against him, and I always gave him his due respect when I spoke about him,” Hackett said. In the build-up to the Sydney Olympics, the Hackett-Perkins rivalry was a huge media focus. The media-savvy Perkins would often dominate a media conference between the two swimmers.
Hackett admitted “I’d just sit back and listen and occasionally get a word in, but that was OK. That’s part of sport. To be honest, I missed the hype and the build-up of racing Kieren after the Olympics. He sometimes used the media as a competitive thing. It’s not something I like to do. I prefer to do my talking by the way I perform in the pool.”
His “talking” came across loud and clear to Perkins. When asked what made Grant Hackett special as a distance swimmer, Perkins didn’t hesitate: “There is no question: it is certainly his speed, his ability to pick up the pace at any time in a race. His speed over 200 meters, and now the 100, makes him the complete package for a distance swimmer.”
His second mighty adversary, Ian Thorpe, whose phenomenal six-beat kick courtesy of his size 16s is his secret weapon, had been the world’s dominant swimmer ever since he surged past Hackett to take the 400 free at the ’98 World Champs as a 15-year-old. Some suggested that Hackett’s outstanding performances had been diminished in the shadow of Thorpe’s amazing record and the media hype that surrounded him. Hackett did not dwell on this issue and was quick to point out that he was primarily an endurance swimmer, whereas Thorpe was tailored for shorter distances.
Hackett back then: “I concentrate on my own game, working at getting fitter, fine-tuning technique and aiming to come home faster. Ian is so strong in the legs, the back-end of his race, with his six-beat kick, it’s hard to match. He’s a very gifted athlete with a lot of genetic advantages.” To be honest, though, Hackett admitted he was a little sick of being asked if he could beat Thorpe. He just said that at the Aussie Trials, he would aim to beat his PR (3:42.51) in the 400 and see where that would take him, under Thorpe’s WR 3:40.08, perhaps?, but he would have to beat Thorpe to do so.
Interestingly, Hackett was quietly confident he could break the 7:40 barrier in the 800 at the Trials. He clocked 7:40.34 at the 2001 World Champs behind Thorpe’s WR 7:39.16. “Although Thorpe will skip the race, in my mind I will be racing the world record, so he will still be there,” mused Hackett.
One Tough Hombre
At the Aussie Trials, Hackett swam the 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1500 freestyle events as well as relays for his club, Miami. As usual, he took the amazing workload in stride: “I think the Trials will be a good test to see how I will manage at the Worlds. There’s no 800 at the Olympics, so that’s a bonus,” he joked back then.
If his good sense of humor and an easy-going nature were part of what makes Hackett a great distance swimmer, his coach, Denis Cotterell, also pointed to his mental strength: “Grant’s always had obvious mental toughness even when he was young. With age and experience, he’s developed more resolve and an ability to learn from mistakes and quickly move forward,” said Cotterell.
Hackett followed his older brother, Craig, to the successful Miami club when he was 7. “My relationship with Denis has progressed naturally as I’ve gotten older. We’ve been together a long time, but there have been no real complications working together. We’ve built on each competition as a stepping stone, from winning at age group competitions to breaking a world record,” Hackett explained.
His brother, six years his senior, came agonizingly close to making the ’92 Olympic team. At the selection trials, he finished sixth in the 200 free and clocked the fourth fastest time overall in the 100 free. Unfortunately, it was in the “B” final and was overlooked. Craig quit the pool after the experience at only 18 and made a successful transition to the ocean in the popular professional surf lifesaving circuit. Hackett and his brother both lived at home with parents Neville and Margaret at that time, although the two moved into a house Grant is building later in the year, which was both close to the pool and Bond University, where he was part way through a commerce/law degree.
It is clear that part of Hackett’s success has come from the support of his family and the high level of camaraderie in his training squad: “I enjoy living at home and appreciate the support I get from people on the Gold Coast. It’s an honor to be recognized as part of the Gold Coast, and I will always return here even if I spend some time overseas.”
He made it clear that any time overseas would come after Athens 2004, but the suggestion of taking up a scholarship for a year to get his degree “squared away” might flag immediate attention from U.S. colleges. Hackett was realistic about his available time until then. He said “I will put the degree on hold after this semester until after the Olympics, then put swimming on the back seat for a couple of semesters.”
He clearly valued his many sponsors and, in particular, his involvement with a leading banking group that gave him the opportunity to attend and speak at boardroom functions, and even attend an occasional golf day. Hackett: “I meet and associate with some very interesting people and have learned a lot from my involvement, which is helping to develop my interest in the business field and will hopefully offer some opportunities beyond swimming,” he explained.
Just before I was about to leave the Hackett home, I asked him one last question: “When was the last time you lost a 1500 race?” Hackett recalled the event as though it were yesterday: April 1996, at the Olympic Trials when he was still 15, he finished fifth behind the great distance swimmers Daniel Kowalski, Perkins and Glen Housman. It wasn’t long before Hackett was shooting for his seventh consecutive national 1500 title in Sydney just a few weeks later.