SYDNEY (Reuters) - Plenty of male swimmers have won the same individual event at two Olympics but none has claimed three in a row. Grant Hackett plans to change that.
Hackett has chosen the most grueling event of them all, the 1,500 meters freestyle, and after a change of lifestyle and coach the 27-year-old Australian is back on course for this unique achievement.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” team captain Hackett said at the Australian Olympic trials.
“You do set a certain standard for yourself and if you’ve broken world records in the past it doesn’t get any easier as you get older.”
It takes a special kind of person to choose the 1,500 because competitors have to spend up to six hours a day in the pool, churning through 100 kilometers a week.
Tall and skinny with a huge armspan, Hackett has the perfect build for a long-distance swimmer and his versatility allows him to swim every distance from 200 to 1,500.
The 1,500 world record holder, Hackett was unbeaten for a decade and once also held the world mark for 200. He is the second fastest swimmer of all time over 400.
At one stage, it really seemed that Hackett was invincible until suddenly his body started to fail him.
Hackett won his second Olympic title in 2004 despite swimming the final with a partially collapsed lung and he recovered to win his fourth straight world title in 2005.
His right shoulder was the next to surrender. He underwent surgery in November 2005 which forced him to pull out of the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.
Later in 2006, he began having back problems and was then diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma. He arrived at the 2007 world championships in Melbourne in the worst shape of his career and it showed.
He finished third in the 400, seventh in the 800 and seventh in the 1,500, ending his unbeaten run.
Two years earlier he had won all three events at the world championships in Montreal to beat Michael Phelps for the title of the world’s best male swimmer but a younger breed of long-distance swimmers was starting to emerge.
Hackett was beginning to have doubts about his chances of winning in Beijing and decided he needed a change.
So he left his Gold Coast home, where he had lived all his life, moved to Melbourne and married Australian singer Candice Alley.
He also split with Dennis Cotterell, who had coached him for 20 years, and appointed Ian Pope as his coach.
It was a risky decision but the tide began to turn. In August, he swam his fastest time since 1995 to beat the new world champion Mateusz Sawrymowicz of Poland at the Japan Open.
In March, he proved he was anything but a spent force at the Australian trials, winning the 200, 400 and 1,500 treble.
Hackett is not swimming the 200 in Beijing. He had hoped to take part in the 10-km open water race, which is being included on the Games programme for the first time, but was disqualified from the world championship race — the Olympic qualifying event — in Seville on Sunday for hampering other swimmers.
He is likely to start as one of the favorites in the 400 but he is focusing on the 1,500.
His world record of 14 minutes 34.56 seconds, set at the 2001 world championships, remains more than seven seconds faster than anyone else has swum despite the United States offering $1 million to any American who could better it.
His winning time at the trials was 14:48.65, quicker than the winning time set by Russia’s Yuri Prilukov at this year’s European championships.
Hackett knows he will have to go even faster to win a third medal in Beijing but says the most important thing is that he has rediscovered his self-belief.
“That’s the first step out of the way,” he told reporters. “Now I’m really looking forward to putting my head down and doing some hard training.
“I was seven seconds faster than I was leading into Athens and about eight seconds faster than I was before Sydney, so I am most certainly in a better position than I was leading into those Olympic Games.
“I just want to have no regrets — that’s all you can finish with. You can’t control other people’s performances.”
Editing by Clare Fallon