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How Grant Hackett made it back to championship swimming

Grant Hackett at the Australian Swimming Championships in Sydney, April 5, 2015. AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

How Grant Hackett made it back to championship swimming

Grant Hackett’s foundation training for the 1,500m freestyle event, which started more than 20 years ago, has been a key reason for his shock return to the Australian swimming team.

Experts and swimming fans alike have been amazed at Hackett’s ability to bounce back after just six months of training and a six-year break from competitive swimming.

Hackett qualified for the Australian men’s 4x200m freestyle relay after finishing fourth in the 200m final at the 2015 FINA World Championships selection trials in Sydney earlier this month.

Hackett, at 34, is the oldest athlete in history to qualify for the Australian swimming team and will contest the 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia in July.

How could this possibly happen?

Fitness in the pool

There are two physiological reasons which may explain why Hackett returned to form so quickly. As one of the fittest swimmers in the world during his ten-year reign as 1,500m freestyle king, Hackett developed a high-level endurance capacity.

Grant Hackett says his lung capacity hasn’t changed from his former championship days. AAP Image/David Moir

Hackett says his lung capacity has been developed to an exceptional level and interestingly, it has not declined during the past six years.

His blood health hasn’t changed, which indicates his enormous ability to cope with fatigue under physical stress during competition.

Hackett told the Sydney Morning Herald:

All of a sudden, you see yourself improve and your body holding up more and more and you actually think, ‘I’m physically okay’.

I did all the testing. My bloods, my lung capacity […] it was the same as when I competed before.

There is a reasonable explanation of why Hackett’s physiological capacities have avoided decline. Hackett maintained a good level of fitness during his six-year retirement, which helped him return to near-peak condition.

Athletes may reach their physical peak between 25 and 35 years of age. But swimmers normally peak before they reach 25 because of the intensive nature of swimming, the risk of shoulder injuries and the expense to continue long-term in the sport.

There is no reason why Hackett cannot continue to improve in the lead-up to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

Research shows it is physically possible for Hackett to be competitive in the 200m and 400m freestyle events -– if he is willing to give himself that chance.

But it may be too late for Hackett to return to the 1,500m freestyle, as it takes years to build for this specialised event. The shorter freestyle distance events are more achievable for Hackett.

Hackett’s return has generated excitement within the Australian team, as the swimmers are looking forward to his leadership and wisdom. He will prepare in a professional manner, and inspire those around him with his meticulous approach and positive demeanour.

Hackett returned from the United States a year ago after having treatment for addiction of Stilnox sleeping pills. His specialised medical treatment occurred after the culmination of ugly public incidents, including his marriage breakdown to singer Candice Alley.

Hackett’s reputation was damaged and he was determined to look forward and rebuild his life positively.

Back on the Gold Coast

Hackett returned to familiar surroundings on the Gold Coast after receiving valuable advice from his support group.

He rejoined his boyhood swimming squad at Miami, under the tutelage of Australian coach Denis Cotterell.

Grant Hackett is reunited with swimming coach Denis Cotterell who last year was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame. AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy

After speaking with US Olympic great Michael Phelps last year, Hackett began swimming training for the pure joy of it. He was a retired athlete and the past pressures were behind him.

Hackett quickly found his rhythm and those foundation years of training served him well as he surprised himself with incredible times at the trials in Sydney. He even scored a bronze medal in the 400m freestyle final at this month’s national swimming championships in Sydney.

A happy athlete is a successful athlete, and this has proven to be the case with Hackett. Back in his home town, with family, friends and a supportive partner, Debbie Savage, Hackett appears settled and content.

A highly intelligent athlete, Hackett’s recent choices and wise outlook have proven to work in his favour. He says the joy to swim without pressure has been a factor in his impressive results in the pool.

Not all comebacks are successful

While Hackett has made a stunning comeback, former champion Ian Thorpe struck a rocky path during his comeback attempt for the 2012 London Olympics. Thorpe trained overseas, hoping to rebuild his form and fitness in relative isolation in Switzerland.

But it proved a big mistake. Thorpe failed to make another Olympic team. He cited his lack of racing practice and physical preparation in the lead-up to the London trials.

There are huge differences in the nature of Hackett and Thorpe’s comebacks. Hackett returned to familiar surroundings, where he had achieved so much success previously, whereas Thorpe chose the opposite approach – and isolated himself.

Thorpe also had sponsorship commitments and placed pressure on himself as he returned, while Hackett is now swimming for pleasure.

A caring and functional home environment is often the most comforting place for athletes, as they aim for success on the world stage. That’s why Hackett is thriving once more.

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