Returning swimming great Grant Hackett would be welcomed into the Australian team in any capacity despite his personal struggles since his 2008 retirement, head coach Jacco Verhaeren has said.
And Hackett, who will swim in the national trials that begin in Sydney on Friday, said he would be keen to support the team team even if he did not qualify for this year’s world titles in Kazan, Russia.
Verhaeren will head to the national titles looking for answers over the form of three world champions. James Magnussen’s performance will be heavily scrutinised following his shock decision to leave his long-time coach Brant Best for the inexperienced duo of Lachlan and Mitch Falvey, while Cate Campbell and Christian Sprenger will be returning from shoulder injuries.
But on Hackett, who returned to the pool in November last year with former coach Denis Cotterell, Verhaeren was emphatic that the Olympic champion would be invaluable to the team, which is rebuilding from its shambolic London Olympics performance, which was marred by the men’s 4×100 freestyle relay squad’s infamous Stilnox bonding session.
Hackett has been involved in several highly publicised incidents since his retirement, involving his bitter divorce with Candice Alley and battles with Stilnox addiction, which led to a stint in a US rehabilitation centre last year.
“Life is difficult as it is, I believe for everyone … and sometimes people do have struggles,” Verhaeren said. “But I always think that whatever happens, happens but if people can overcome their issues that’s a win for them and there’s always respect for that.”
Hackett said he would be keen to act as a mentor for the swimmers.
“The sport has been heading in the right direction, both from a cultural and performance point of view, and if I can do anything just to support to help the team continue to move forward,” Hackett said.
“I’d do anything for the guys down at the pool or if anyone ever calls me or if Australian swimming asks me to do anything I’d certainly help and support anyway I could.”
Sprenger said Hackett’s standing among swimmers had not been affected.
“He’s remembered for being an incredible leader for the team and just an outstanding performer,” Sprenger said. “He just knows what to say and how to say and he just knows how to go about being a good athlete.”
Hackett said he would focus on the 200 freestyle, but he has studiously avoided labelling his return as a comeback and does not expect to make the team for this year’s world championships. However, his recent times indicate he could be a chance of earning a relay berth.
Verhaeren said he would be thrilled if Hackett could earn selection.
“It would be amazing of course,” he said. “I really enjoy seeing the passion with which he swims and trains again. He looks very fit to me.
“He’s a great support for the younger athletes and the other athletes in the team so it would be amazing if he could make the team but as he says himself he doesn’t want to load himself up with too many expectations.”
As for Magnussen, Verhaeren said he was not sure what to expect from the dual 100 freestyle world champion, who has swum slower times this year compared to the lead-up to last year’s national titles.
“We first have to see the trials where he is fully tapered and fully prepared before we can actually say this was a great process or this needs further evaluation and look for improvement,” he said.