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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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."