Swimming: Hackett threat to Phelps' redemption

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The Independent Online

Last November he drove his Land Rover through a stop sign and was stopped by Maryland State Police, where he was found to be under the influence. "I made a mistake," he said. "Getting into a car with anything to drink is wrong, dangerous and unacceptable. I'm 19, but no matter how old you are, you should take responsibility for your actions, which I will do. I'm extremely sorry."

The courts took a lenient line and instead of handing one of America's most celebrated sportsmen a year in jail they gave him an 18-month suspended sentence. A winner of eight medals in Athens (six gold), he will be grateful for the reprieve and intent on making more statements in the water. And they don't come any bigger than going for eight golds.

Phelps finished third in that 200m final, but both Ian Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband will miss Montreal. Van den Hoogenband is recovering from injury while Thorpe has decided to take 2005 off and make it a "training year" to start building for the 2008 Olympics. Which you would have thought has played straight into Phelps's hands. Well yes, and no.

For the remarkable Grant Hackett stepped forward at the Australian Trials to go to the top of the 2005 world rankings in the 200, 400, 800 and 1500m freestyle - and he's attempting what would be a unique "grand slam" in Montreal. Widely regarded as a "miler" (he hasn't been beaten over 30 laps since 1996), Hackett actually is a terrific all-rounder and Thorpe's absence from the 400m in particular looks like ensuring that race is the pick of the championships.

It's the first time since Thorpe arrived on the scene in 1998 as a 15-year-old with size 17 feet, that someone else will be able to call themselves world 400m champion. Phelps is a heavy favourite, but the mongrel in Hackett should ensure the young American is pushed all the way. Two Italians, Emiliano Brembill and Massi Rosolino will probably reach the final, while there are realistic hopes for Britain's David Carry to do the same.

In the wake of London getting the 2012 Olympiad, British Swimming have set themselves a target of fifth on the medals' table at those Games. Given the work that is being done at age-group level, and the success of the youth squad in the European Championships last week, this is an attainable target.

Worth highlighting is that the US and Australia are so dominant that they took 19 of the 32 golds between them at last year's Games. True, Britain did spectacularly under-perform in 18th (only two bronze), but in the 2003 World Championships Team GB were eighth - with two golds.

To reach the top five at an Olympics a country needs to pick up around four golds; at a World Championships the target is marginally higher (there are more medals on offer), though within seven years Britain could also achieve their aim of being Europe's strongest swimming nation. They should be helped in their search for talent when London gets its first long-course (50m) pool.

Britain take 18 to Montreal, including James Gibson and Katy Sexton who defend their 50m breaststroke and 200m backstroke titles. Expectations are high in the women's 400m where Caitlin McClatchey and Joanne Jackson are ranked second and fourth in the world, respectively.

Inevitably, there are those looking for their 2012 card to be marked in Montreal. Yet in swimming seven years is an interminable length of time. The loneliness of the long-distance runner is nothing compared to that of a swimmer. Only the true legends survive the test of time. Examples: Thorpe has been around for ever but is 22, while Van den Hoogenband and Michael Klim are 27-year-olds held together by Elastoplast. But they are all "sprinters". Hackett is still 25 but has thousands of miles of wear and tear, and Britain's best distance talent, Athens 1500m bronze medallist David Davies, will be 27 in 2012. It's a long way away in every respect and we may not have seen Britain's best London hope yet.

Thorpe and Van den Hoogenband aren't the only high-profile absentees in Montreal. South Africa, whose 4x100m men's freestyle squad sprang the upset of the 2004 Games by beating the US and Australia in world record time, have not entered a team. A spokesman for their federation said "four swimmers had not reached the qualifying standard" at the national trials.

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