Column by John Lohn, Swimming World senior writer
BASKING RIDGE, New Jersey, February 1. IT's been six years since he raced in international competition, standing on the top step of the Olympic podium in Athens on two occasions. A lot, of course, has changed since that time. The sport went through a tech phase, one that has since been short-circuited. Michael Phelps made Olympic history. And, now, Ryan Lochte is making incredible waves.
All of the changes, however, have not deterred what has long been discussed in the sport. Frequently through the years, there has been chatter about the possible return of Ian Thorpe to top-flight competition. Until now, it has been just that – empty discussion. Today, however, many in the swimming community have gotten their wish. The man nicknamed The Thorpedo is coming back.
The comeback of Thorpe, a three-time individual Olympic champion, is easy to assess in some ways. We know he'll put in the training necessary to make this return worth his while. If he didn't have an all-the-way attitude, he wouldn't be wasting his time. We know he'll have a different look on the blocks and in the water, his trademark black bodysuit no longer allowed by FINA rules. We know the competition level Thorpe will face will be more daunting than ever before.
What don't we know? Well, that's simple. How is this whole thing going to play out? Will Thorpe's return be a triumphant one, in which he is again the hero of Australia and an Olympic God? Will his return be middle-of-the road? Could this comeback be a complete failure, with the end result sounding something like this: "He shouldn't have bothered."
It will be some time before we can accurately gauge this reemergence.
Because Thorpe must register for anti-doping testing, we might have to wait until the Australian Trials for the 2012 Olympics in London to get a true feel. In the meantime, there will be plenty of speculation and – in all likelihood – reports out of training that say both "he looks good" and "he's struggling." Hey, that's the way things go today.
Chances are that Thorpe will place his primary focus on the 100 and 200 freestyles during his return, due to the fact that his extended break will make being a force in the 400 free an extremely difficult challenge. How do we think he'll do? With a heavy sigh, it says here he'll be an Olympian again, but not a player in the medals chase in London.
The sport has undergone some major boosts in talent and performance since Thorpe last competed on the international stage, at the Athens Games in 2004. While Thorpe was well ahead of the world during the peak of his career, there is more depth today and more talent. Heck, there is a fifth stroke, the underwater dolphin kick that the best of today use so significantly. That was never a major asset during the Thorpe era.
Looking at the 200 freestyle, Thorpe will enter an event that – arguably – is as stacked as any in the world. Once the world-record holder in the discipline, Thorpe watched Phelps surpass that global standard at the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne. Meanwhile, the competition these days also includes the likes of Ryan Lochte, France's Yannick Agnel, Germany's Paul Biedermann and South Korean star Tae Hwan Park. That's a loaded group of individuals, and simply advancing out of the semifinals will not be an easy chore. Yes, Thorpe is still the second-fastest performer in the event's history, as far as textile suits are concerned. Having been away for six years, though, won't make it possible for Thorpe to hang with the current powers that be.
In the 100 free, Thorpe will find the going just as tough, maybe more so – depending on the perspective taken. Thorpe has always been a middle-distance freestyler and not a sprinter. As a result, besting names like Cesar Cielo, Nathan Adrian and Alain Bernard can be considered a longshot. If nothing else, it's a heck of a hill to climb.
There's no doubt that Ian Thorpe returning to the sport is a positive development. He left the sport too soon and to get another look will be enticing. Additionally, he'll provide a spark for Australian relays. Yet, don't expect Thorpe to return the level of his past. It's just too much to ask.