n the water, no one can hear you scream. And for years, Grant Hackett’s pain threshold was legendary. At the 2000 Olympics, he had a nasty virus and still took gold in the 1500m freestyle. At the 2004 Games in Athens, he swam the same event with a collapsed lung that cut his breathing capacity by 25 per cent. Yet he still triumphed. “Technically, he’s the least skilled,” said Hackett’s lifelong coach, Denis Cotterell. “But he’s the toughest.” So when Hackett retired in 2008 aged 28, he seemed well set to take that courage and success into the next phase of his life. By then, the big Queenslander was married to singer Candice Alley, and in 2009 they welcomed twins, Jagger and Charlize. A day job as a banking executive for Westpac was flourishing and Channel Nine snapped him up to read sports news and occasionally
commentate. Dare we say, life was going swimmingly. Fact is, the pool was the farthest thing from his mind. Apart from surfing with brother Craig, an Ironman, the former world champ and Australian swim captain hadn’t dipped a toe in water since retiring. Having spent 20 years chasing a black line across a blue room in pursuit of gold, life beyond the pool was about shifting horizons and keeping his feet firmly on the ground. That was until an upturned grand piano sang out with an uneasy tune. It was 2011 and Hackett and Alley had indulged in raceday festivities at Derby Day, before returning to their flash Melbourne apartment where an argument flared and a demolition began – bottles smashed, walls torn down, and Alley’s pride and joy, the baby grand piano, destroyed. Seven months later, photos of the carnage leaked to the media, reports claiming Alley and the children were, “unharmed but distraught and shaking with fear.” The sinking of Grant Hackett had begun. For all the tabloid headlines, accusatory op-ed pieces and police investigations that followed, Hackett was never charged. With anything. But his marriage was over and a custody battle for the young twins was born. A 2012 admission that he’d developed a “heavy reliance” on Stilnox – a sleeping sedative known to cause hallucinations, delusions and impaired judgment – added more grist to the rumour mill. When 60 Minutes inevitably came calling, Australians saw their former Olympic hero messy with tears and some remorse. The coup de grâce on Hackett’s once squeaky-clean image came last summer when grainy photos emerged of a dazed and confused man, semi-naked and apparently searching for his missing son, in the foyer of Crown Casino. Rock bottom had been reached. Hackett’s parents staged an intervention – “he’s a dickhead but we love him,” said father and ex-cop, Neville, to a frenzy of journalists – and shortly afterwards, their son flew to the US to check into what he called a “retreat”, but what everyone else knew was rehab. A year on and the Grant Hackett wandering around today’s hotel is better dressed, clearer eyed and much surer of foot. Just hours before, the 35-year-old had shocked the world by qualifying for July’s world titles in Russia after placing in the 200m freestyle at the Australian trials. As he squares those big shoulders and sits down to talk, the stories in the papers, on the airwaves and online still refer to the dark clouds of the past. Though today, there’s also a silver lining – and the faint glimmer of gold in his future.