The Stuff of Heroes

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We know his name, but its meaning is a seductive work in progress. He grows from stage to stage with the ease of someone who has passed this way before; and, via every new challenge and with each stunning deed, Ian Thorpe changes the way we think about champions. At his first Olympic Games, the 17-year-old Australian is driving through the water at Sydney's International Aquatic Centre like swimming's gift from the gods. "He was born to swim," said Italian Massimiliano Rosolino, who finished second to Thorpe in Saturday's 400-meter freestyle final. "I think he can still get better. Who knows? I hope for himself that he does. I hope for myself that he doesn't."

On the first evening of the swimming program, the expectations of millions found perfection in 10 laps of the Olympic pool. Thorpe won two gold medals, broke his own world record for the 400-meter freestyle and shared another world best with three teammates when he anchored Australia's 4 x 100 freestyle relay team to victory over the U.S. — a country that had never failed to win that event at an Olympics. For Thorpe, it had been the "best minute, best hour, best day, best week" of his life. "To be able to dream and to fulfill it is the best thing an individual can do," he said. "It was just so great to be able to share that moment with the whole country." Thorpe's triumphs lifted an already happy host nation's mood — and inspired the great racers from the rest of the world to hit new heights in a pool that elite swimmers think is fast: Eight world records were set in the first two days of competition.

As soon as Thorpe walked onto the pool deck Sept. 16, it was like Phil Spector orchestrating thousands of paparazzi: a thunderous wall of sound combined with a dazzle of camera flashes. The 17,500-seat stadium rocked to the chants of "Thor-pee, Thor-pee, Thor-pee" as swimming-crazy Australian fans anticipated the showdown between their country and the world's top swimming team, the U.S. "Until tonight I hadn't got the Olympic buzz, the true spirit," said Thorpe. "But it was as if the gladiators had walked into the Colosseum. When I walked out I was ready to race and race well. Hearing the crowd gave me an even bigger buzz." For his rivals, that kind of atmosphere is a source of envy. U.S. sprinter Gary Hall Jr. believes the Americans could learn something from the Australians. The host country's mix of big venues, knowledgeable fans and corporate sponsorship had given Australia an edge in the pool.

It's a swimming system and sporting culture that have made the current teenage sensation. "Only Australia could produce Ian Thorpe," says Gennadi Touretski, an Australian team coach who previously coached national teams in the former Soviet Union. "A teenager as Olympic champion — that's the Australian dream," he told TIME, recounting the examples of John Konrads in 1960 and Shane Gould in 1972. Touretski believes swimming is entrenched in the country's culture. Strong local clubs, rather than colleges, breed promising youngsters, he says, the best of whom go to sports institutes as teenagers. Government funding also supports home-based athletes (such as Thorpe) and their coaches (such as Doug Frost, Thorpe's mentor). A benign climate, particularly in Sydney and Brisbane, offers hundreds of training venues year-round. Supportive parents who cart seven- or eight-year-olds to early-morning squad sessions help achieve great results at a younger age. "There is no country with this culture," says Touretski.

And once every generation, out of hundreds of thousands of young hopefuls, along comes a talent like Thorpe. Not only does he have the oversized body (1.95 m) that is perfect for power aquatics; other swimmers believe he is also the hardest-working athlete of a select breed. "I'm very fortunate to have what I have, and really it is a gift," Thorpe said. "And I'm very thankful for that." Thorpe's long, graceful stroke and explosive kick were on show in the 400-meter freestyle. He was a full second ahead at the first turn and swam the rest of the race in style for a new world record of 3:40.59. It gave him his first Olympic title — and, amid the country's wild celebrations, he thanked God, the crowd, the nation, his family and his coach. "I'm one of the select few athletes who have performed at their best at the Olympic Games," he said afterward. "It's one of the things I wanted to do." The other thing he wanted to do on Saturday was to help his teammates — Michael Klim, Chris Fydler and Ashley Callus — break the U.S. lock on the 4 x 100 freestyle relay.

Before the Games, Gary Hall Jr. said the Americans would smash the locals "like guitars." A world-record start by Klim (48.18 sec.) set up the Australian victory, but Thorpe sealed it. "I was hoping [Thorpe] would find something. I knew he was the fitter guy of the two and he just paced perfectly," said Klim. Hall got the U.S. ahead at the final turn, but Thorpe kept his head cool and his stroke smooth to bring home the race in a new world-record time of 3:13.67. "The last 50 m were rather painful," said Hall. "This is the Olympics, all or nothing. I doff my swimming cap to the great Ian Thorpe. He had a better finish than I had." While Hall was hurting, Thorpe's mind was a blur. "When I touched the wall I had this feeling we had won," he said later. "I didn't look up or anything." The Australians celebrated with some air guitar on the pool deck.

Australian swimming idol Dawn Fraser, three-time winner of the Olympic 100-meter freestyle and a teenage champion in 1956, said the relay was the best race she had seen. Most observers were wondering whether they had seen the best swimmer of all time. Australia's head coach, Don Talbot, once described Thorpe as possibly the "swimmer of the century." On Saturday night, the chatty coach was almost lost for words. "How can you enhance the opinion I've got of him?" said Talbot. "I don't have the superlatives." But it was the question that commentators were not going to leave alone: Is Thorpe the best ever? "This is only my first Olympics," Thorpe said carefully. "When I have achieved a little more than I have, maybe then I can start thinking along those lines. It's too early yet." For now, it is enough for the world to enjoy his fluid beauty; the journey he makes on his sporting career will be shared and savored.