Ian Thorpe: Swimming is somewhat unique amongst sports in that there are four strokes, or disciplines, and there are both individual and relay events.
It would be something akin to asking a footballer to follow a match with Test Cricket, move on to track and field, and then finish up with 90 minutes of soccer.
Few competitors in swimming nowadays compete in all four disciplines, but many do two, plus relays, so that the level of athleticism and conditioning is nothing short of phenomenal.
Australians have a proud heritage in swimming, after all, the most efficient stroke ever devised was originally called the Australian Crawl before political correctness caused it to start being called “freestyle,” the implication being that a competitor could participate in a race with whatever stroke he or she preferred, but if you should ever witness someone using the breaststroke in a freestyle race, you will doubtless be witnessing a singular event.
Australia’ proud swimming heritage has had numerous champions who acquitted themselves admirably whilst representing their country and it is our design to make a closer examination on one of the most successful of the modern Olympic era, Monsieur Ian James Thorpe.
Ian Thorpe was born 13 October 1982 and grew up in the Sydney suburb of Milperra. His family was proficient in sports, his dad a cricketer for Bankstown Cricket Club, his mother a high level netball player.
Young Ian, however, did not follow either of his parents’ paths. He began swimming at the age of five, only to discover that he was allergic to chlorine. This compelled him to swim with his head totally above the water, highly inefficient, but at that early age he had ability so superior that he won his early races despite this obstacle.
Ian Thorpe eventually experienced a decline in his sensitivity to chlorine. He began to becoming a dominant junior swimmer in New South Wales in 1994 and 1995. In high school, he and his sister were coached by Doug Frost. Ian, always a big lad since birth, was now a bit beyond 180 cm. tall and a dominant swimmer to the degree that he swept the New South Wales Age Championships.
It was by now obvious that he had keen potential and he began to compete against upper level swimmers to test his limits. At the 1996 Australian Age Championships, his times in the freestyle and the backstroke would have qualified him for a spot Australian Olympic Team that was to take part in the 1996 Atlanta Games, but his coach, perhaps rightly so, judged his prospects for Olympic success rather dim for a boy of less than 14 years of age. He did get some additional qualifying opportunities and even though swimmers often peak at a very early age, this might be truer for the women, and Thorpe was not able to post times against the top swimmers sufficient to qualify for the Atlanta Games.
The tender psyche of a young boy may have suffered a blow, but Ian Thorpe soldiered on in 1997, continuing to improve his times to the degree that he became the first Australian 14-year-old to turn in a sub-four minute time in the 400 free. He beat Olympic medalists at this distance and stroke that became his specialty and he established a world record for his age group.
In a display that provided a testament to both his speed and his endurance, Ian Thorpe swam 12 events in the 1997 Australian Age Championships. He won 10 gold and two bronze medals for that effort, establishing six Australian records in the process and only the severest of critics could raise the issue of no silver medals to complement the others.
Thorpe used the four years betwixt the Atlanta Olympics and the 2000 Sydney Games, where he would have home water advantage, to test his mettle against the world’s top swimmers.
He continued to develop physically, eventually reaching 195 cm. He also gained strength and endurance as his natural abilities, honed by years of going against the resistance of water, expanded to match his growth spurt.
Those years betwixt Atlanta and Sydney were to find him regularly flirting with world record times. His repertoire also expanded to include the 100m free. Thorpe won two golds at the 1998 World Championships in Perth, where he was expected to and did produce in the 400m free and the 4 x 200m free. He really began to reach his true potential in 1999 and it seemed as though he would peak perfectly for the 2000 Sydney Games.
He took three golds when the games came to Sydney, the 400m free, the 4 x 100m free and the 4 x 200m free.
Ian Thorpe winning the gold in the 400m freestyle was more or less a foregone conclusion, at least in the eyes and minds of the Sydney media. He did not disappoint by any stretch, cruising through the preliminary heats, setting himself up as a 50-1 favourite according to the bookmakers, and establishing a new world record in the process of winning the final to produce Australia’s first gold of the Games. He did this despite competing against athletes from other countries that were later revealed to have been relying on PEDs simply to stay in the same pool as Thorpe. Besides the three golds, Ian added two silvers to his tally.
2001-2003 were productive years for Ian Thorpe. He took six World Championships in Fukuoka in 2001 and three in Barcelona in 2003, along with a silver and bronze. Leading up to the 2004 in Athens, Thorpe seemed to be maintaining the intensity required to compete at the international level and he was in top form for those Games.
As would have been expected, he took the gold in the 400m free and also established an Olympic record in winning the gold in the 200m free. He backed that with silver in the 4 x 200m free and bronze in the 100m free.
Thorpe then took a hiatus from the pool, coming back in late 2005, but as has happened to many swimmers who experience the burnout that constant competitive swimming poses, he did not seem to have the fire to make the required commitment.
He was in and out of retirement for the next period of years, announced that he would attempt to compete in the 2008 Olympics, and upon failing to do that, retire once again.
He attempted another comeback for the 2012 Olympics, but his stamina and focus had deserted him.
Those final years trying to revisit old glory must have been difficult for Ian Thorpe. There is always the debate about whether it is better for an athlete to walk away at the top of his or her game versus whether it is preferable to soldier on until it is obvious that he or she is a mere shadow of the former self, and it would appear that Thorpe took the latter, more tragic route.
Nevertheless, he will always be considered one of the greatest swimmers ever from a nation with a longstanding tradition of producing great swimmers.