Lessons from Legends: Grant Hackett, The Greatest Trainer in the World


Grant Hackett swimming the 1500.By Chuck Warner//Special Contributor

As the months before the 1996 Australian Olympic Trials counted down, Coach Denis Cotterell waited for a talented 14-year-old on his team to embrace becoming a great swimmer and all that was required to transform an individual into one. The name of the boy was Grant Hackett

Throughout the 1990s one of the greatest heroes of Australian sport was Kieran Perkins. The Aussies loved and respected endurance athletes, and Perkins’ victory at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in the 1500 was outdone by a repeat performance from lane 8 at the Atlanta Games.

Hackett had been chasing Perkins age-group records in Australia and when he finished fifth in the 1500 at the 1996 Australian Trials, he eliminated Perkin’s mile record for 13-14 year-old boys with a time of 15:30.60. Buoyed by the success that came from months of increasing his training load to eight practices per week, Grant uttered the words that Coach Cotterell longed to hear from Grant, “I want to do this.”

But the words that followed from the 14-year-old was even more impressive. “If I expect to be the best in the world then I’ve got to do the best worker in the world, be the hardest worker and the best trainer.”

From that point on Grant Hackett adopted a training schedule that allowed for only a one-week break after each domestic season, and a two-week break after the international season. He trained ten sessions per week for most of each year, and continued the schedule for 12 more years.

The advantage of accumulative training for swimming is much like ‘compound interest’ is in finance. Grant built one season of training onto the previous one so that he could train for about 60,000-70,000 meters per week and do it fast.

A part of Lessons from Legends rationale that Grant Hackett has been the greatest trainer in history is both because of his training consistency and the amount of training required for the mile. At one point Michael Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, paid a visit to Australia and Michael trained with Grant. Coach Cotterell tells me that Michael couldn’t keep up, and after their experience, Coach Bowman told Coach Cotterell, “Now we know what the world standard is for intense training.”

Grant Hackett beat Perkins in the 1500 freestyle at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and won again in Athens in 2004. He was so devoted to good health in an attempt to become the first swimmer ever to win the mile at three Olympics that he wore a surgeon’s mask on air planes, and gloves to keep from contracting colds and illnesses that had plagued him. Despite his commitment, he missed his goal by an eyelash, finishing second in Beijing in 2008.

There is much more to learn from Grant Hackett’s story but it is helpful for every swimmer to understand:

  • Work at practice is like making deposits in a bank. Races are a time to make withdrawals. The more deposits, the greater the potential withdrawal.
  • Seasons of work build on each other like ‘compound interest’ in investments.
  • The swimmer, like Grant Hackett, that can train with good technique will strengthen an efficient neurological system more capable of staying efficient at the end of a race.
  • “Fun” is a matter of perspective. Grant Hackett enjoyed the fun of swimming faster and winning, thus becoming the best trainer in the world was part of the fun. 

Speaking of the “best trainer in the world,” China’s Sun Yang dominated the competition in London in both the men’s 400 and 1500 freestyles. He is also coached by Denis Cotterell much of the year. Yang is an inch taller than Hackett, and even more exceptional technically than Grant was. But from what we hear, Grant Hackett still holds the standard for the greatest trainer in the world.

FAnd Then They Won Gold (Small)or more information or to order Chuck Warner’s books Four Champions, One Gold Medal or …And Then They Won Gold, go to www.areteswim.com (access Books * Media), Swimming World Magazine or the American Swimming Coaches Association.