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Thursday, August 24
Australia's 'Thorpedo' swimming for gold

SYDNEY, Australia -- Ian Thorpe finishes his warm-down laps and floats to the edge of the pool.

Two girls standing in his lane continue their chat, ignoring Thorpe's arrival. A friend approaches the pool and puts his right foot on Thorpe's head, playfully pushing him underwater for a moment.

Is this any way to treat a guy favored to win at least three gold medals at the Sydney Olympics, a teenager called "swimmer of the century" two years ago by the Australian national coach?

If Michael Jordan walked into a gym in any U.S. city, guys playing pickup hoops would stop and gape.

But when Thorpe swam with a bunch of high schoolers recently at a community pool, there was little hubbub. He sat on the floor, a towel wrapped around his waist, overlooked by passers-by as he chatted with buddies before a race.

The 17-year-old Thorpe holds world records in the 200-meter and 400-meter freestyle events and is the Olympic favorite in both races. He also will swim on Australia's 800-meter freestyle relay, which holds the world record, and on the 400-meter relay that is a medal contender.

He already is an Australian hero, and winning gold medals in Sydney would make him an even bigger superstar in a nation devoted to the sport.

But the swimmer nicknamed "Thorpedo" doesn't take himself too seriously. He bristles while recalling national coach Don Talbot's "swimmer of the century" comment two years ago.

"It's quite offensive to all the other swimmers that have come before me and have achieved so much," he says. "I haven't even been to an Olympic Games yet. After I perform over a long period of time and am successful at the Olympics, then I can be considered among the best swimmers in the world."

The 6-foot-5, 211-pound Thorpe uses a huge wingspan to propel himself through the water. His strokes are fluid and relaxed, but they gobble up huge chunks of the pool.

He also uses his mind as a competitive edge. Thorpe was near the top of his class in high school before taking two years off to focus on swimming. He still would like to study medicine someday.

His club coach, Doug Frost, said Thorpe's intelligence helps him understand and evaluate ways to improve his swimming. To Thorpe, a former member of his high school debating team, it's all about perspective.

"There's the risk of being able to think about too many things at once," says Thorpe, who exudes a maturity far beyond most teenagers. "But I know the intelligence I have helps me to balance things."

Thorpe has talked to Sydney University about taking courses part-time next year so he can finish his high school requirements and move on to college. But he also envisions swimming in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.

Swimming is a national pastime Down Under. Most Australians live near an ocean, and the pools in every city are packed with swimmers. After school, youngsters head to the pool -- not just to splash around, but to swim laps.

Thorpe first jumped in his family's backyard pool as a little kid when he got tired of watching older sister Christina, a top swimmer before a shoulder injury ended her career.

Thorpe was allergic to chlorine at first, but overcame that problem. By age 10, he was an age-group champion.

"He's a very talented athlete, and he certainly right from the beginning has shown an exceptional ability to use those talents in the pool," Frost says. "He has an ability to adapt very quickly to changes.

"At 12 years old, it was obvious he was going to be a championship swimmer. It hasn't just happened. It's developed over a period of time."

Thorpe was 15 when Talbot made his comment at the 1998 Commonwealth Games, where Thorpe nearly broke the 200-meter freestyle world record and swam the first leg of the record-setting Australian 800-meter freestyle relay.

Thorpe set four world records at the 1999 Pan Pacific championships and another three at the Australian Olympic trials in May. Both competitions were held in the pool that will be used for the Sydney Games.

The Olympic pool wasn't available for the New South Wales short course championships in early August, so Thorpe and hundreds of other teen-agers competed at the Warringah Aquatic Center in suburban Sydney.

Thorpe swept his races, the 200 and 400, at Warringah -- not surprising, since he has the five fastest 200-meter times in history and the three fastest 400-meter marks.

But the past year has not been quite so easy for him. Thorpe broke his ankle while running in a national park in October. He missed only two training sessions, but had to swim with a fiberglass cast on his leg for a while.

Then came the drug accusations.

German swimming coach Manfred Thiesmann said it was widely believed Thorpe used performance-enhancing drugs, and German swimmer Chris-Carol Bremer reportedly said Thorpe's large hands and size-18 feet (U.S.) could be the result of Human Growth Hormone.

Bremer later apologized to Thorpe, saying he had been misquoted by a German newspaper.

Thorpe has denied drug use, saying he is eager to be tested for blood doping and offering to have blood samples frozen in case a test for HGH becomes available.

For now, though, Thorpe would like to put that all behind him.

He is just happy to be swimming in his first Olympics and hopes he can live up to the expectations of Australian fans.

"I don't look at it as pressure, I look at it as support. I guess that will be a hometown advantage," he says. "I'm very excited at this stage. I want to savor these days leading up to the games and savor the games themselves."
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