Column by John Lohn
BASKING RIDGE, New Jersey, May 3. LONG before LOST made it onto the ABC airwaves, fascinating many viewers and driving many others crazy, the Man in Black was Ian Thorpe. He'll forever be remembered for his dominant performances in the middle-distance freestyles, achieved wearing a black, full-body suit.
Thorpe hasn't competed since he walked away from the sport in 2006, but now there are rumblings that the Thorpedo is contemplating a comeback in time for the 2012 Olympics in London. According to a weekend story in the Herald Sun, Thorpe is considering a competitive return, largely to help Australia chase gold in the 400 freestyle relay in two years. Thorpe, however, rebutted those reports, saying he wasn't thinking in that direction.
If Thorpe indeed returns to the pool, something his agent suggested is a possibility but far from a likelihood, the sport's new rules won't allow him to wear his trademark bodysuit. But, the presence of Thorpe in competitive action again would be a major boon for swimming. After all, we're talking about a legend here.
When Thorpe opted to put his career on hold, he left the pool with nine Olympic medals, five of the golden variety. At the time of his retirement, he was the world-record holder in the 200 and 400 freestyles. More, he meant a great deal to swimming and to his country, which he rallied to gold in the 400 free relay at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
Thorpe no longer owns either of his once vaunted world records. One, the 200 freestyle standard, was eclipsed by Michael Phelps. The other, which is tougher to swallow that it's gone, was taken by Paul Biedermann at last summer's World Championships in Rome. Biedermann, who also took Phelps' 200 free record, was powered by a supersuit.
Let's just start with the notion, as reported by the Herald Sun, that Thorpe was interested in returning in order to help the Aussies make a run at the 400 free relay gold in London. If Thorpe could return to what he was in his heyday – or, at least close to it – his presence would add to an already intriguing event, where the United States and France headline the world. To make it a three-team race, with a former superstar added to the picture, would only add to the excitement.
Really, though, a Thorpe return would be all the better if it meant he again would tackle some individual disciplines and set up some head-to-head battles the sport would love to see. Remember the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and the 200 freestyle showdown between Thorpe, Pieter van den Hoogenband and Phelps? It was a special race. To see Thorpe come back and duel again with Phelps, and now Biedermann, would almost be another chapter.
If Thorpe does return, again still a longshot, it figures the 100 freestyle might be a better fit for the 27-year-old. While Thorpe is the finest 400 freestyler we've ever seen, the 100 free is obviously less taxing and an event he likely could return to top form in than the 400 free. And, here comes the selfish part: It could lead to another duel with Phelps.
Some might not believe that Thorpe, four years removed from his competitive days, can come back and be the force he once was, especially the first half of the 2000s. Meanwhile, there is no guarantee his return is going to happen, although his agent didn't defuse the possibility, which is why this is news in the first place. Only time will reveal what shakes out. This much, however, is certain. The return of Ian Thorpe would be a tremendous development for swimming, for a great champion is always welcome to walk back on the deck.