FUKUOKA, Japan. July 18. ENTHUSIASM is running high on the Australian team in Fukuoka, as the Aussies hope to keep riding a wave of international sporting success their nation has enjoyed this year.
At the Olympics in Sydney last year, where they were led by the remarkable teenager Ian Thorpe, Australia finished second behind the United States in the medal count. They are confident they can go one better this time.
"Look, you should never count your chickens before they hatch but everyone's keen on performing well at these Championships," Australia's national men's coach Doug Frost said.
"We've had a very good training camp in Singapore and I believe this team is shaping up as equally as good if not better than the Olympics."
Swimming has been booming in Australia since the Olympics, and the World Championships will be shown live on prime-time television. In contrast, if the meet is to be shown on American TV, no one seems to know where or when.
The Japanese have also fallen in love with Australian swimming, and especially 18-year-old Thorpe, who arrived at Fukuoka international airport to be greeted by dozens of screaming Japanese teenagers.
In a scene reminiscent of 1964, when America's Don Schollander got the rock star treatment, Thorpe's face is plastered all over Fukuoka and he has featured in a series of television advertisements.
Swimming-Thorpe gets the pop-star treatment in Japan
By Julian Linden
FUKUOKA, Japan, July 18 (Reuters) – Ian Thorpe is a national hero in Australia after winning three gold medals at last year's Sydney Olympics but he appears even more popular in Japan.
The 18-year-old cannot walk down a street in Australia without being stopped but that is nothing compared with the pop-star treatment he gets in Japan.
His face is plastered all over billboards, he is featured in television advertisments and the girls just love him.
Dozens of teenagers lined the arrivals hall at Fukuoka's international airport just to catch a glimpse of the Thorpedo when he arrived for the World Championships and more were waiting outside his hotel when he got there.
"I don't know how to respond to it," said Thorpe, who is still uneasy with his fame. "It's obviously fantastic to see that sort of support, but I'm not sure what to make of it."
Thorpe's teammates like to poke fun at him. "He's not a super-action figure in our eyes, he's just the Thorpedo," Australian butterfly champion Geoff Huegill said.
Japan's love affair with Thorpe is mutual. He made his international debut at the 1997 Pan Pacific Championships in Fukuoka when he was just 14 and is genuinely fond of the country and its people.
"I'm returning to where it all began and I'm glad to be back," Thorpe said.
"I don't think I'll ever experience anything like Sydney again in my career but I think the atmosphere at these World Championships will be startling."
Thorpe's life has changed enormously since he won a silver medal in the 400 meter freestyle final in Fukuoka four years ago. A few months later, in January 1998, he became the youngest male swimmer in history to win a world title when he claimed the 400 meters at Perth and he has not looked back, collecting medals and seemingly setting world records every time he swims.
He won three golds and two silvers at the Sydney Olympics, the best haul by any athlete at the Games, and is looking to do even better in Fukuoka.
"A lot of things have happened since 1998," Thorpe said. "I'm still the same person and I still probably do the same things as I did then but I just try and do them a little better."
Thorpe's clash with Dutch sprinter Pieter van den Hoogenband in the 200 meters promises to be one of the highlights of the meet. Van den Hoogenband upset locals at the Sydney Olympics when he snatched Thorpe's world record and beat him for the gold medal.
But Thorpe regained his world record at the Auusie nationals in March and says he is keen to take him on again.
Much of Australia's success at the Championships will depend on the performances of Thorpe, who is striving to win an unprecedented seven gold medals — matching the record number of golds won by an entire Australian squad at a single world championship.
The 18-year-old won three gold and two silver medals at last year's Olympics but has added an extra two events for the World Championships.
"Both physically and mentally, I'm better prepared than ever before. I'm feeling a lot better than I have in the past," Thorpe told a news conference on Wednesday.
"But for me to walk away satisfied I have to put in some great performances in all my events, I want to be consistent right across the board."
Thorpe is an overwhelming favorite in his pet event this time. He is also favored to win the 200 meter and 800 meter freestyle titles after setting world records in both events at this year's Australian Championships and can expect more medals in the three relays. His weakest event is the 100 meter sprint.
"I have a heavy meet from Day One to Seven. I don't have a day off but that's the challenge I've set myself," he said.
Thorpe is not the only Australian going for gold. Almost a dozen potential medalists were dragged out of the pool to meet reporters at Wednesday's media conference in downtown Fukuoka.
Grant Hackett is a red-hot favorite to win the 1,500 meter freestyle. Already the world, Olympic, Commonwealth and Pan Pacfic champion, Hackett's biggest challenge now is trying to break his countryman Kieren Perkins's 1994 world record of 14 minutes 41.66 seconds.
Matt Welsh is the favorite for the 200 meter backstroke after American Lenny Krayzelburg withdrew from the meet to swim at the Maccabiah Games, and Petria Thomas is the woman to beat in the 200 meter butterfly after the retirement of Australian world record holder Susan O'Neill and American Olympic champion Misty Hyman's decision not to compete.
Michael Klim, who won seven medals in Perth, including four golds, has recovered from an ankle injury and is keen to defend his 100 meter butterfly title, though he'll have to overcome Sweden's Lars Frolander, the Olympic champion, and his own teammate, Geoff Huegill to do so.
Brisbane teenager Leisel Jones is a genuine contender in the 100 meter breaststroke after winning a silver medal in Sydney. She comes into the met ranked second in the world (1:07.96), but she, too, will likely be hard pressed by the USA's Megan Quann, the Olympic champion who has not been as overwhelming this year as last, and by Chinese newcomer Luo Xuejuan, who has the wworld's fastest times this year in the 50m (31.45) and 100m breaststroke (1:07.42).