Farewell to a Champion

By John Lohn

CRANBURY, New Jersey, November 21. IN essence, he retired a little more than two years ago, when the Athens Olympics came to a close. It was in Greece in 2004 that Australia's Ian Thorpe won gold in the 200 and 400 freestyles, the 400 free providing a repeat. We didn't know it then, but that competition – really – was Thorpe's last hurrah.

Over the past two years, there has been much speculation concerning the future of, perhaps, the greatest middle-distance freestyler in history. Initially, he just wanted to get away from the pool, perfectly understandable considering the dedication he put into his livelihood. But, as time passed, Thorpe dealt with glandular fever, a broken hand and, as we learned yesterday, whether he possessed the desire to pursue greatness all over again.

Obviously, Thorpe had enough. At a press conference in Sydney, the Aussie sensation announced that he was walking away from professional swimming. Ten years after breaking onto the international scene, Thorpe bid farewell as a 24-year-old. There's no doubt that Thorpe, if he wished, could have returned to major-player status on the global stage. Could he have gone to Beijing in 2008 and added more Olympic hardware to his resume? Possibly. There never will be a clear-cut answer and that's fine. After all, Ian Thorpe doesn't owe anyone an explanation for his decision.

During his decade at the top, Thorpe won five Olympic gold medals and established 13 world records. In his prime, he was basically untouchable and his world records in the 200 and 400 freestyles could remain for a long time. Now, as he leaves his sport behind, it's important that swimming fans recognize Thorpe for what he's accomplished and not for packing it up early. Often, athletes are criticized for hanging on too long. Thorpe, though, got out on his terms and, presumably, with something left in the tank. He said his desire had waned. Without question, it wouldn't be right to see Thorpe go at it without 100% commitment.

If there are negatives to Thorpe's retirement, one is this: It's unfortunate that there was no knowledge that we were watching him race, adorned in his familiar black bodysuit, for the last time. Another negative? The Aussie men, already hurting to find depth, will not have Thorpe to provide a surge with a comeback.

With Thorpe out, Grant Hackett has been left as the banner athlete for the Land of Oz. It's a role Hackett knew at the 2005 World Champs in Montreal and one he certainly will handle with aplomb, particularly if reports suggesting that Hackett may have some world-record swims left turn out to be true. Otherwise, the Aussies have work ahead and must hope that Eamon Sullivan (sprint free) and Brenton Rickard (breaststroke) continue to emerge as international players.

So, the swimming world watched Ian Thorpe say goodbye. To Ian, we say thank you. Your talent was mesmerizing and it will be missed.

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