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August 8, 2009

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Hackett's record survives onslaught

GRANT Hackett was on a surfing trip in Nicaragua last weekend when he got a text message from his mother-in-law which stunned him: his eight-year-old world record in the 1,500-meter freestyle had stood the test of time -- and those now-banned polyurethane suits.

The retired Australian swimmer learned the mark of 14 minutes, 34.56 seconds he set at the world championships at Fukuoka, Japan, in 2001 was still safe -- by about 2 1/2 seconds. Tunisia's Ous Mellouli, the 2008 Beijing Olympic gold medalist, won the 1,500 at the world championships in Rome in 14:37.28, wearing one of the high-tech bodysuits.

"I was extremely shocked," Hackett said in a telephone interview yesterday. "I just really expected that the record would go under 14:30. In fact, I texted my mother-in-law back to make sure she hadn't sent me a heat time."

But Hackett's 1,500 mark -- set with the Australian wearing one of the old "fast-skin" suits with no arms -- became the single defining record: the only Olympic event that withstood the onset of the performance-enhancing swimsuits which first appeared in February 2008 but will be banned from January 1 next year.

From 2010 and beyond, the original Speedo LZR Racer and two of its most sleek successors, the Arena X-Glide and the Jaked -- and others like it will be history, but not before helping to account for more than 150 world records in nearly 18 months.

American Kate Ziegler's 1,500 mark from 2007 also stands, but it is not an Olympic event.

A total of 43 world records were set in eight days in Rome, but Hackett's 1,500 remained. Also gone was Hackett's 800 freestyle mark from the 2005 worlds in Montreal, and for good measure, former teammate and superstar Ian Thorpe's 400 freestyle record from 2002.

Germany's Paul Biedermann broke Thorpe's former record of 3:40.08 set at the Manchester Commonwealth Games by just one one-hundredeths of a second in Rome.

China's Zhang Lin, who trained under Hackett's former coach, Denis Cotterell, on Australia's Gold Coast for the three months preceding the Rome worlds, obliterated Hackett's mark of 7:38.65 by more than six seconds, finishing in 7:32.65. Mellouli also went under the previous mark to finish second in the 800, a non-Olympic event.

"After what I saw happen in the 400 and 800, I really figured my 1,500 was gone as well," Hackett, who won silver behind Mellouli in the 1,500 at the Beijing Games. "In those suits, the longer you go, the more assistance they give."

Hackett was never a supporter of the new suits.

"When it comes down to the technology, and not the athlete, it's not fair," Hackett, 29, said. "The margins are so minute at that level, that little bit of technology makes such a difference. And you want to know you are on a level playing field."

Australian team head coach Alan Thompson said the fact Hackett's and Ziegler's records had stood showed how strong they were.

"Every other record has fallen here, or in a polyurethane suit in the last two years," Thompson said in Rome. "To survive this onslaught here shows how good those performances are. If they have stood through this, they are going to stand for a while."


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