Profile: Ian Thorpe

  • Share
  • Read Later
GREG WOOD/AFP

Ian Thorpe celebrates after setting a world record in the Men's 400m Freestyle

Is Ian Thorpe the most technically proficient swimmer of all time? Probably not. Is he the most physically powerful freestyler there has ever been? No again. Surprisingly, he is unimpressive in the gym and hopeless at ball sports. But at 193 cm and 90 kg, with natural buoyancy and a basketballer's feet and hands, he can move water like the moon. His cartoon elasticity, combined with the longest stroke in swimming, makes "Thorpedo" everything his nickname suggests: sleek, smooth, strangely beautiful and, to the competition, lethal. "If you were going to do a Frankenstein," says Brian Sutton, coach of nine Australian Olympians, "if you were going to put a swimmer together from scratch, you'd build Ian Thorpe."

He is just 17 years old and has swum the 200 m and 400 m faster than anyone else in history. He fascinates rivals, coaches, sports scientists and fans. In two years, he has become Australia's most admired athlete, ahead of track star Cathy Freeman. While the Aboriginal Freeman is the host nation's only big hope in the main arena, Thorpe spearheads its mightiest swim team in decades. In an island nation, you would expect water sports to be important. They are. Of all the Olympic events, the home fans are savoring a duel in the pool with the Yanks, who don't seem to have an answer for the teenage talisman.

Skillfully managed, gracious and well spoken, Thorpe has been embraced by a public disturbed by the antics of sportsmen such as local tennis brat Lleyton Hewitt. Thorpe's impact on Australian youth has been compared with the Tiger Woods phenomenon in golf. "He's become a similar figure of hope, an ultimate role model," argues 1988 Olympic 200-m champion Duncan Armstrong. Thorpe has been a cover boy on magazines ranging from the frivolous to the prestigious, and many Australians feel they know a lot about him—from his shoe size (17) to his taste in music (grunge) to the girls he gets mushy about (Britney Spears, Aussie pop star Kylie Minogue).

Coaches like Sutton see thousands of hopefuls, and there's always a weakness: aerobic or strength limitations, lack of com-petitiveness, laziness, fragility. Something. But in Thorpe, Sutton can't find one, and neither can many others. "He marries grace with power," says Armstrong. "He caresses the water, but when it's time to be brutal, he's like a raging bull."

For two years, just for fun, Armstrong has hatched "plan after plan to beat this bloke in my head. And every time I've come up with a theory, someone has gone out and done what I imagined—got on him early, or pounded him in the turns or stuck to him like glue to see if he'd crack." Thorpe has had an answer for every challenge.

It's premature to group Thorpe with superstars like Mark Spitz and Alexander Popov as an all-time great, but if he swims in three Olympics, as he plans to, and dominates as he has in lesser meets since 1998, he will belong in that company. He has already staked a claim: the swimming community thought it had seen a race for the ages when Australian Kieren Perkins recorded 3:43.80 in the 400 m at the 1994 world championships in Rome. The field trailed 10 m behind, an eternity. But Thorpe has since lowered that mark three times, most recently to 3:41.33. By comparison, Klete Keller, America's best 400-m man, and no polliwog, swam 3:47.18 last month—a new U.S. record. He would lose to Thorpe by 11 m.

Sutton believes Thorpe can improve his time, particularly in the 200 m, in which his world record of 1:45.51 is comparatively less imposing. "I don't think we've seen anything near the best of him over 200 m," says Sutton, who argues that the endurance training required for the 400 m is hindering Thorpe's speed in the shorter events.

Thorpe's character is praised as effusively as his swimming. His manager, Dave Flaskas, says he "doesn't waste energy trying to fake a persona." His father Ken says he and wife Margaret have raised an "old-style person": trustworthy, decent and clean-living. Ken's father Cec was a frustrated cricket player who lived vicariously through his three sons' athletic pursuits. This was suffocating for Ken, who vowed to let his two children play pressure free.

As a result, swimming is hardly mentioned in the Thorpe home in Sydney, and the son's interests are varied: philosophy, movies (especially those of noted philosopher Adam Sandler), the French language, coffee, nuclear disarmament, computer games and even economics—he has taken steps toward studying part time next year. He will also need some math. Thorpe is one of Australia's highest-paid athletes, with endorsement deals from the likes of Qantas, Adidas and Omega.

He's maddeningly modest about it too. A few months ago, he was in a waiting room at a television station with Shane Gould, Australia's princess of the pool in Munich, 1972. She was showing him her Olympic medals and, noting his gaze, told him, "You'll have a bunch of your own soon." Thorpe replied, "I'd be happy with one."

Is this modesty or realism? It has been argued that Thorpe, by winning the 400 m at the 1998 world championships in front of a home crowd, has handled the most excruciating pressure his sport can throw at him. This is wrong. There is something singularly exciting and terrifying about the Olympics, where even in finals, says Sutton, "there'll be five guys who handle the pressure and three who don't." Says Armstrong: "We're not paying the world enough respect. The Olympic Games are about passion; they're not always about times."

But Thorpe's determination has been underplayed. Constantly seeking improvement, he is prickly before meets. He hasn't given an interview in months and has even moved his training to enemy territory—Colorado Springs—to avoid local distraction. He pours so much into his swimming that it takes him a week to recover from meets. During that time, he likes to watch movies, and his favorite is Billy Madison, in which a good-hearted lamebrain played by Sandler has to start school all over again as a young adult.

Thorpe too will begin a new life in his 20s, but unlike Billy Madison, he'll do so from a position of strength—probably, almost certainly, as an Olympic great: Thorpedo, the most complete swimmer of all time.