By Stephen J. Thomas
SYDNEY, Australia. October 2. NEWS broke late last week that five-time Olympic gold medalist Ian Thorpe had not maintained the consistent training program under men’s head coach Dave Salo at the University of Southern California over the past few months whilst based in Los Angeles that most had been led to believe. It was notable that in a media release from Swimming Australia a couple of weeks back that reference to Thorpe’s preparation was simply as “his training base in Los Angeles”.
Several sources have now confirmed that it seems that Thorpe has been training privately with a couple of undisclosed coaches for his dry-land and swim training since the end of July.
When I spoke to Coach Salo poolside at Irvine in early August during the U.S. Summer Nationals he said that Thorpe has settled in reasonably well to his squad after a somewhat late arrival, while also having to fit in with a squad that were in the final stages of preparing for a major meet. Salo also had been busy completing his management commitments at Irvine, which included the major task of hosting the National Championships; he was dividing his working hours between Irvine and USC. Certainly, Thorpe would not have seen much of his new coach in those weeks.
It was around this time that Thorpe was the recipient of considerable amount of “unkind” press Down Under about his general fitness and his level of commitment to training since settling into his new home in the Hollywood Hills. His management, quite fairly, orchestrated both television and press interviews to counter these claims. It would seem that this was the flag for both local and overseas media to descend on the USC pool and Thorpe obviously did not want any more of it.
Unfortunately for Thorpe, the price he pays for being one of this country’s most outstanding and highly paid athletes is that he will always be highly sought after by the media; it simply comes part and parcel with the sponsorship bucks. The moment the 15-year-old Thorpe powered past teammate Grant Hackett in the final lap of the 400 freestyle to take gold at the World Championships in Perth, his road to financial success was well on the way to being laid. However, while Hackett, the Aussie team captain, has worked hard to develop his media skills, which has endeared him to media reps and the general public alike, Thorpe has become less and less comfortable with their constant attention. Unfortunately, the reality for those in his position is the more you shun the media the more they will persist.
Thorpe has had a history of involvement in major media controversy stretching back to the drama that unfolded leading up to his selection in the team for the Sydney Olympics. At issue then was whether Thorpe would be allowed to wear his sponsors’ bodysuit (adidas) over the Australian team sponsored suit (Speedo). The cameras followed Thorpe everywhere in the weeks leading up to the Australian selection trials, tensions were high, some were saying the new teenage star of world swimming might not be allowed to compete if he stuck to his guns.
In 2002, there were rumors of a rift between Thorpe and his then-coach Doug Frost at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. Despite Thorpe producing his most recent world record – 3:40.08 in an amazing 400 freestyle swim, the rumors were growing. By the time the Aussie team got to Yokohama for the Pan Pacific Champs six weeks later, the media wanted some answers, but team management waited until after the final night of competition to announce the split.
Probably now the most famous incident that led to months of media speculation was Thorpe’s infamous false start in his heat of the 400 freestyle at the selection trials for the Athens Olympics. The world-record holder and Olympic champion would not be able to defend his title or so it seemed. The rest is history, after months of intense speculation his training partner and teammate Craig Stevens stood down to give Thorpe the swim and his second consecutive gold medal in that event. The emotion on his face after winning that race in Athens told the story; and Thorpe has not swum that race since.
Fast-forward to 2006, Thorpe who had taken more than a year away from the pool since Athens made a solid return in winning the 100 and 200 freestyle events at the Commonwealth Games selection trials in January. However, his performance was affected by illness and on the eve of the meet, with his coach about to give birth to her first child, he withdrew from the team. A broken bone in a chance domestic accident further delayed his return to competition during the Northern hemisphere summer.
Now just more than two months out for the Aussie selection trials, the global swimming community will be all the more intrigued as to how the Thorpedo shapes up. Certainly even with a limited preparation he will cruise into the team, which on the men’s side at least is in need of his experience. One thing is for sure the media will not desist but let’s hope for the sake of the sport that one of the all-time champions of the pool makes the personal choice to again rise to the heights he is indeed capable.
To this day Thorpe holds an amazing nine of the 10 fastest times in history over the 200 and 400 freestyle.