Alexander Porter welcomes the return of Grant Hackett to the swimming pool, but is the former swimming legend deserving of the “King of the Comeback” title bestowed upon him?


Grant Hackett came out of retirement at the age of 34.

After six years away from the sport, he successfully gained a place on the Australian Swimming Team for the upcoming World Titles. His comeback has dominated the headlines. Let’s break down why.

For the majority of sports lovers there is something truly special about a good comeback. It’s exciting to see an old sporting favourite return to their past stomping grounds. It’s inspiring to see them pick up where they left off. It is thrilling to think that commitment, desire and drive are all it takes to bridge the gap between retirement and reintroduction in the world of elite sports. Without a doubt, it is one of the most heart-warming facets of sport. At least, on face value. What appears to us mere mortals, seeing a triumphant press conference preceding exceptional results on the field/pitch/pool (you get the idea), is merely the perception. The reality, as the adage so powerfully reminds us, is not always so rosy. Which begs the question, can you ever truly come back?

Let’s get the issue of semantics out of the way upfront. Of course you can physically make a “comeback.” Following his retirement in 2009, Grant Hackett would have left the Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre prior to his 4th place finish in the recent World Title Trials (at least I assume so; not knowing the man personally I can’t vouch for his whereabouts the past six years and I can’t comment categorically on whether he has left the pool since that retirement or not). It is a concession I am willing to make, that if you leave a physical location, then return to said location, you have, by definition, made a comeback. Ironic word play aside, the metaphorical waters remain murky still.

I will also concede that there may be something of a “comeback” when it comes to statistics. It is highly impressive that Hackett can match his younger competitors, staring at that black line beneath the water. As far as his times are concerned, he has most certainly come back. However, that isn’t the way his return his portrayed. On the contrary, the “comeback” is being used to refer to a swimming champion bringing back the ideals of hard work and success that the Australian swimming team once knew in the golden era of Thorpe, and Klim and co. Then something changed. James Magnussen popped up on Commonwealth Bank ads every few minutes and scandals rocked the Australian swimming team in a terrible London 2012 Olympics campaign. Hackett’s comeback rides the winds of change. He is sold to us as the return to the good old days.

That’s not a comeback, that’s a publicity drive.

The truth is, you can come back to the pool. You can come back to the times you once swam. But when it comes to that classic sporting “comeback,” I’m not entirely sold on the idea.

There is no shortage of articles flooding the web right now championing “the comeback.” However, each athlete in focus is a household name despite their absence from their respective sports. Sure, Mohammad Ali took time away from boxing between 1964 and 1970, but do you really think anyone in that time forgot who he was? His return to sport in this light isn’t so much a comeback as it is a continuation. The time that he – and others, including Kelly Slater, Andre Agassi and Michael Jordan to name a few – spent away from sport did not diminish their stature as athletes. On the contrary, it was their celebrity status outside of sport that kept them relevant which made their eventual “comeback” so poignant. In reality, while they had taken off the uniform, they had never truly left.

The term “comeback” should be reserved for those deserving of the mantle. Take Jason McCartney, for example. Having survived the Bali Bombing blast in 2002 that left 88 of his fellow Australian citizens dead, McCartney overcame burns to 50 percent of his body and returned to professional football eight months later, playing a single game for North Melbourne in a victory over fellow AFL side Richmond, before retiring after the final siren. In fact, forget “comeback” – that’s worthy of a Hollywood film right there.

The contrast between McCartney’s return and the “comeback” of Grant Hackett are clear. One man disappeared from the sporting world before almost disappearing from this Earth before making his “comeback.” The other was on our screens the entire period between his retirement and his return, as a media commentator, admitted Stilnox addict and as a domestic violence instigator. He is the one we are collectively crowning as “King of the Comeback.”

Forgive me if I’m alone but I’m jumping off this bandwagon.

A final clarification is required here. I’m not against Grant Hackett returning to a sport he once dominated. More power to him for being athletic enough in his ’30s to compete with hungry teenagers in the pool. Nor do I think he should be dragged down by his indiscretions of the recent past. I simply feel that they must be equal parts of his return, alongside the work ethic and physique and so on. You cannot comeback with your best features and expect the worst features to be left behind.

In fact, you cannot comeback if you never left at all.


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