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Swimming: Ash Delaney reunites with Grant Hackett for the world champs in Kazan

Role reversal: Ashley Delaney, a backstroker now also swimming freestyle. Photo: Simon Scluter.When Ashley Delaney made his first major national team, as a backstroker at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, team captain Grant Hackett was among the earliest to applaud. Yet although Hackett knew Delaney’s name, his time, and something of his joy, the veteran could not have imagined back then that, almost a decade later, both would be relay swimmers bound for next week’s world championships in Kazan, Russia.
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Delaney, reinvented as a versatile freestyler, is a member of a 4 x 100 metre squad missing injured superstar James Magnussen. Hackett, reborn as a mature-aged 4 x 200 metre swimmer after a seven-year retirement and some well-publicised personal difficulties, will be the oldest team member in Russia, with 100-metre breaststroke defending champion Christian Sprenger the middle peg between 35-year-old Hackett and Delaney, 29.

“I still look at him in awe,” says Delaney of the elder statesman. “He’s just a great guy, and a great swimmer. Now that he’s back on the team we’ve had chats and stuff, and it’s just been good to talk to him. He’s just got so much experience and respect around the team and he’s a good leader for the swimming team, as well.”

Delaney, as another of its senior citizens, is also in a different, happier, place these days. At this stage of the last Olympic cycle, the Beijing silver medallist was growing closer to needing a change after almost five years at the AIS; keen to return home to his family and friends in Melbourne.

The problem, as he now sees it, was in the timing. He returned late in 2011, leaving himself little chance to adjust to a new training regime before the 2012 Olympic trials. The cost was immense, with a shattered Delaney missing his first team since that 2006 debut. It was a difficult period for the swimming nut and aspiring coach/swim school owner, who nevertheless did his best to train through the London Games. “There was just a few times where I was …,” he trails off. When you didn’t have it in you? “Yeah.”

At that stage, Rio seemed even further away than the 13,214km Delaney still hopes to travel to a second Olympics next year. “Even some of my family of members asked ‘oh, do you think maybe that’s enough’?” he recalls, along with his reply that while his motivation remained intact, so did his ambitions to swim on. At the world championships in Barcelona the following year, Delaney won a silver medal in the medley relay, and swam a personal best en route to sixth in the 100 backstroke final. “So I knew that I still had my best swims in me.”

What came as a surprise, though, was the role Delaney’s freestyle would play. He had swum “a little bit of it” along the way, but never at nationals. Until last year, when the result for the long-time VIS scholarship-holder was an encouraging ninth. “So then this year I thought I might take it serious and try and sneak in for that relay, which I did, which was a little bit of a blessing in disguise, because my backstroke was a little bit off at that meet.”

Now, he wishes he had broadened his focus earlier in a career that has nevertheless brought a silver medal as a heat swimmer in the medley relay in Beijing Olympics, four medals – including three gold – at the Delhi Commonwealth Games, multiple national records and one Commonwealth mark.

“Definitely regretting that a little bit,” he laughs. “But in saying that it’s given me a little bit more excitement to my swimming, it’s given me something fresh to focus on. After doing the same thing year in, year out, racing the same races, to flip over onto my front has been something fresh. I was still motivated with my backstroke, but it’s sort of given me that little bit of a spark that I can actually do both strokes and be competitive as well.”

He hopes to make a second Olympic team in both disciplines next year, when Hackett will be the oldest, Sprenger next, and Delaney third in the seniority race if all goes to plan for the trio in Rio. ” It’s sort of tough, because people ask me about my age … (but) Geoff Huegill swam his best times at 32, 33, when he came back after he’d had a lot of time out of the water,” says the Sale-raised, Hawthorn-based swimmer.

“So I think if the motivation’s there and you’re doing the right training then you can still get the best out of yourself later on in life. And I started being serious about swimming quite late, at around 15, 16. You’ve got some kids who burn out around 18, 19, because they were winning age nationals from when they were 10. I only ever got a bronze medal at age nationals at age 18, so I feel like I’ve been hungry for a long time, and I still am.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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