Ian Thorpe

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Greatness in sport-in any field, for that matter-is seldom a consequence of defining traits or signature moves. But in our admiration for sporting heroes, we tend to seize on any quirk that seems to explain their mastery. We clutch at Ali's dancing feet, Nicklaus' pre-swing tilt of the head and Borg's icy temperament, when really they're tiny pieces in an impossibly complex puzzle.

Australian Ian Thorpe is 17 years old and has swum freestyle over 200 m and 400 m faster than anyone else in history. He fascinates rivals, coaches, sports scientists and fans. Amid baseless accusations of drug use and the simplistic focus on his colossal feet, we've tended to overlook his most important quality: completeness.

Is he the most technically proficient swimmer of all time? Probably not. That would be one of the fine Americans of the 1970s, Bruce Furniss or Brian Goodell, or their younger compatriot Ambrose "Rowdy" Gaines, or perhaps an Australian stylist like Murray Rose or Stephen Holland. But Thorpe is in the top 10-and, in his own generation, peerless. Cartoon-elastic and equipped with the longest stroke in swimming, "Thorpedo" is what his nickname suggests: sleek, beautiful and explosively powerful.

Is he the strongest freestyler ever? Probably not. That title belongs to one in the line of American Goliaths, from Johnny Weissmuller to Matt Biondi. But again, Thorpe is high on the list and the burliest of the current crop. He is unimpressive in the gym and hopeless at ball sports, but at 1.95 m and 98 kg, with natural buoyancy and a basketballer's feet and hands, he is to the water born. "If you were going to do a Frankenstein and put a swimmer together from scratch," says Brian Sutton, coach of nine Australian Olympians, "you'd build Ian Thorpe."

Coaches like Sutton see thousands of hopefuls and invariably spot a weakness: aerobic or strength limitations, lack of competitiveness, laziness, fragility. But in Thorpe, Sutton can't find a flaw. "He marries grace with power," says 1988 Olympic 200-m champion Duncan 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 like [fellow Australians] Michael Klim or Grant Hackett 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. And every time Thorpe has come up with something new."

It's premature to group Thorpe with Mark Spitz, Vladimir Salnikov and Alex-ander Popov as an all-time great, but if he swims at three Olympics, as he plans to do, and dominates them as he has at lesser meets since 1998, he'll belong in that company. "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.

His completeness extends to his character. His manager, Dave Flaskas, says Thorpe "doesn't waste energy trying to fake a persona." His father, Ken, says he and wife Margaret have raised an "old-style person": trustworthy and clean living. Ken Thorpe, who'd felt suffocated by his own father's fixation on cricket, vowed never to ruin sport for his two children with paternal pressure. As a result swimming is hardly mentioned in the Thorpe home, and the son's interests are varied: philosophy, movies, French, nuclear disarmament, computer games and economics, which he may study at university next year.

He's modest. A few months ago he was in a television-studio waiting room with Shane Gould, Australia's princess of the pool at Munich in 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? Thorpe has not yet competed at Olympic level, where even in the finals, says Sutton, "there'll be five guys who handle the pressure and three who don't." Adds Armstrong: "The Olympic Games are about passion; they're not always about times." (Armstrong would know. To win 200-m gold and 400-m silver in Seoul, he shaved 2.7 sec. and 5 sec. respectively off his pre-Olympic best.) Maybe there's a fearless swimmer bound for Sydney who'll burn Thorpe as "The Animal" Armstrong burned Biondi in 1988.

But Thorpe's determination has been underplayed. Constantly seeking improvement, he's prickly before meets and drained for a week afterwards. At these latter times he likes to watch movies, and his favorite is Billy Madison, in which a good-hearted lamebrain played by Adam 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 almost certainly do so from a position of strength: as an Olympic great-the most complete swimmer of all time.