Slaying His Demons

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It is now history that Grant Hackett was the raging favorite for the 1,500 m-and that ultimately he won comfortably. These are facts, yet in isolation they're misleading. Confronted with them, future generations may conclude that the Australian perfunctorily stroked 30 laps, then strolled to the dais to collect what everyone believed beforehand would be his. Few may realize that in the days before he became Olympic champion, Hackett had almost convinced himself he couldn't win.

"It is going to be one of the greatest 1,500s of all time," South Africa's head coach, Wayne Riddin, predicted two days before the heats, probably aware he was adding to the pressure on Hackett, who had swum poorly in the 400-m and 200-m free-style finals, and dismally in the heats of the 4 x 200-m relay.

Although unbeaten over 1,500 m since 1997, Hackett was more than usually vulnerable to a group of rivals who included all-time-great compatriot Kieren Perkins and several fast-improving youngsters.

Trying for a third consecutive Olympic gold medal in his last race, Perkins was the main threat. A decade of high-level racing and achievement had developed in Perkins a quality that the 20-year-old Hackett lacks: complete self-confidence. Perkins' win in Barcelona was a triumph of talent; hisvictory in Atlanta four years later an act of will. Plonked in lane eight as the slowest qualifier and thought to be hopelessly out of form, Perkins led at every turn in a performance that ranks among the greatest in Australian sport. He arrived in Sydney not having won since Atlanta, but the world had learned that the usual indicators of readiness do not apply to Perkins.

Others were patently ready. At the U.S. trials in Indianapolis in August, 19-year-old Erik Vendt became the first American (and only the ninth person in history) to break 15 min. Though short compared with the lanky Australians, the cherubic Vendt was highly regarded within his own team-and not just in the 1,500 m. At the same trials, he also had out-raced the more experienced Tom Wilkens to qualify as the Americans' No. 2 in the 400-m individual medley for Sydney, where he won silver behind the No. 1, Tom Dolan. In Vendt, the U.S. saw a chance to steal victory in the Australians' pet event-in revenge for the home team's surprise win in the 4 x 100-m men's freestyle relay on the first night.

Hackett was also hearing disconcerting reports about South Africa's Ryk Neethling, a 1.94-m giant who hadn't quite managed to break 15 min. but who stood to earn a fortune from a sponsor if he could win gold; and Ukraine's Igor Chervynskiy, who was also hovering just over 15 min. and whose coach is the Russian Vladimir Salnikov, the only other swimmer besides Perkins to win two Olympic gold medals in the 1,500 m (in Moscow and Seoul).

All these challengers would have dived into the training pool a little more excitedly had they known of Hackett's distress. On the pool deck after his leaden swim in the 4 x 200-m relay heat-he was dumped for the final-Hackett managed a mirthless, bewildered smile. But shortly afterward in his room at the athletes' village, he slumped on his bed and sobbed. A few days before the most important swim of his life, he was near to despair. His normally graceful stroke was a mess, and he was starting to believe it simply wasn't his time to be an Olympic champion.

Famous Australian swimmers Murray Rose and Stephen Holland (himself a victim of pressure in the 1,500 m in Montreal in 1976) were phoning to offer advice. On the team bus and in corridors, well-meaning athletes wanted to know what was wrong. Hackett had no answers. All he knew-all he thought he knew-was that millions of Australians expected him to win this race, and he wasn't going to deliver. When his parents, Nev and Margaret, visited him around this time, they found him in a torment that made them feel powerless.

Dr. Bruce Mason, a biomechanic at the Australian Institute of Sport, offered his diagnosis. It wasn't the technical one that was expected, but it was accurate. "He does not look good," Mason said. "I would say a lot of that is due to the pressure being put on him. He's not swimming as smoothly as he normally does."

Hackett's flawed stroke was a symptom, something that could be smoothed by coach Denis Cotterell so long as Hackett could compose himself. Standard procedure was to get him onto a sports psychologist's couch, but Hackett wasn't interested. He figured that since he was going into the pool alone, he should treat himself. Crying was cathartic; the unquestioning love of his parents and a silent review of his achievements were soothing.

By the heats he was feeling better, which was fortunate because Perkins was the first of his main contenders to swim-and put on a display that had the thousands of spectators on their feet cheering. There was a time when Perkins would wake on race morning and know he was going to excel. This prescience had faded, and when he hit the water for heat 4 Perkins wasn't convinced he had a good swim left in his 27-year-old body. And it had been so long-four years-since he had swum uninjured and with absolute focus that another of his intuitive powers had deserted him: the ability to feel how fast he was swimming. Anxious about qualifying for the final, Perkins pushed himself. When he finished and turned to the scoreboard, the numbers stunned him: 14:58.34-the fastest heat swim of his life and his best time since Atlanta.

Hackett, who'd watched the race on television while having his shoulders rubbed, stared blankly at the screen as Perkins pumped his fists in jubilation. Minutes later Hackett was in the pool for heat 6 and covered the first 1,300 m alongside Neethling and Romanian Dragos Coman. He looked O.K.-nothing more-until, with 200 m to go, he increased the tempo of his kicking and pulled away to win comfortably in 15:07.50. That made him third-fastest qualifier behind Perkins and Vendt. More importantly, the rebuilding of his self-confidence was almost complete. Throughout the race he had felt his stroke gradually smoothing. Desperate for speed, he'd been ripping at the water. He'd been trying too hard.

The final, as a result, was an anti-climax, even though four men broke 15 min. for the first time. Hackett was first off the blocks and was never headed. Perkins loomed at his feet for 10 minutes, but the surge that much of the crowd hoped for never happened. When Hackett touched, in 14:48.33-a little more than 5 sec. ahead of Perkins-he celebrated by thumping the water in a way that suggested relief, and release, more than joy. Perkins told him: "You deserve this." And he did. He had beaten the demons most athletes confront at least once, and having done so, he will never again be so vulnerable. Finishing immediately behind Perkins weren't Vendt and Neethling, but Vendt's teammate Chris Thompson and Russian Alexei Filipets. Their respective times of 14:56.81 and 14:56.88 were within 0.5 sec. of Perkins' winning time in Atlanta.

Hackett had more to lose than did Perkins. Ten minutes after the race, as Perkins held his little daughter, she tried to pull his goggles back down over his eyes. But they don't belong there any more.

The 1,500 m has a new king-not as suave or as polished as his predecessor, but potentially just as great.