Ian Thorpe Recalls His Arrival In Olympic Waters: “I Was Only 17 … With The Pressure Of The Nation On My Back” (Sydney 2000 WR Videos)

Ian THORPE of Australia breathes out before surfacing during a training session at his 50m outdoor training pool at the Centro sportivo nazionale della gioventu in Tenero, Switzerland, Friday, Sept. 9, 2011. (Photo by Patrick B. Kraemer / MAGICPBK)
Ian Thorpe - Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

Ian Thorpe, Australian winner of nine Olympic medals topped by five golds, has recalled how special the first night of the home Sydney 2000 Olympic Games was, despite him having “the pressure of a nation on my back”.

“A [career] highlight for me was winning a medal (gold in the 400m freestyle) on the first night of the Sydney Olympics. I was only 17 years old, and I had the pressure of the nation on my back at that time, and I had another race straight after it, where the Australian team beat the American team in the 4×100 meter freestyle relay race. That was a pretty big night for me to say the least.”

As we look back to the Australian Olympic trials 20 years ago this week and celebrate the arrival in Olympic waters of one of the most thrilling talents in swimming history, worth recalling those events of the first night at Sydney 2000:

Sydney 2000 – Act One, Scene One: Thorpedo, The Thunder From Down Under

The first night was explosive and had writers from the wider world of sport waking up to the gladiatorial nature of a great sport. Day one finals witnessed five world records in four finals, led by a towering performance from Ian Thorpe, 17, and coached by Doug Frost.

As he rose to his blocks for the start of the 400m freestyle final, you could hear a pin drop and hairs standing on end on the necks of a 17,000 capacity crowd in the city of his birth. Thorpey did not disappoint: a jaw-dropping 3:40.59 world record was delivered in a fountain of fancy (big)foot work down the last length that made the Australian teenager look as though Achilles had sewn rockets to his heels.

The writing had been on the end wall ever since Thorpe had become the youngest world champion among men in swimming history at 15 in January 1998, on 3:46.29 in Perth. A year and a half on at Pan Pacs, his best and the global best had been crushed down to 3:41.83. A new era of distance swimming had begun.

Thorpe was back in an hour later. Charged by the atmosphere and driven by challenging comments made by Gary Hall Jr. (USA) on the eve of the Games, the Australians were ready to respond. Michael Klim gave the Dolphins a perfect start in the 4x100m freestyle in a world record of, 48.18sec, 0.03sec inside the standard that had stood to training partner Alexander Popov (RUS).

The race was an AUS v USA heart-stopper: Klim v Anthony Ervin: 48.18 to 48.89; Chris Fydler v Neil Walker, 48.48 to 48.31; Ashley Callus v Jason Lezak, 48.71 to 48.42.

Before the race began, a colleague from The Guardian asked me how the race would go. I concluded that Thorpe would enter the water first, would get caught and past by Hall Jr but would come thundering back to win. The cricket writer was skeptical.

Thorpe entered the water 0.25sec ahead of Hall. The American clocked a sizzling 22.47 down the first 50m, to Thorpe’s 23.34 and the USA had a 0.62sec lead. The unbeaten record of the USA, which had won every 4x100m freestyle title since 1964, looked safe – for a fleeting moment.

Stroke by stroke, paddle of a pull by paddle of a pull, giant kick by giant kick, the Thunder From Down Under clawed his way back into contention. As Hall started to pay the price for that early catch-up and the crowd rose to its feet in anticipation of the first big upset of the Games, the advantage of the man with a depth of distance work in him and Olympic gold at the first time of asking already in the pantheon became crushingly clear in the closing metres of battle.

A 48.30 split for Thorpe gave the Dolphins the crown in a world record of 3:13.67, while Hall’s 48.24 took the USA inside the previous world mark by 1.25sec, for the silver in 3:13.86. The Guardian’s David Hopps turned to me with a beaming smile on his face and said: “You bastard!”

The video shows Thorpe leaping from the water to celebrate before the race is over … seems they wouldn’t have dared even in a realm stacked high with misinterpretation of rules (the problem of last swimmers is not leaping out, to be clear, but leaping in, three parts of the rules on relays relating to the potential obstruction and hindrance of others).

The atmosphere was charged, the air crackling and fizzling in the venue that night. The Australians celebrated by playing air guitar on the pool deck, a gesture aimed at Hall, who had said that the USA would “smash the Aussies like guitars”.

It all made for an electric moment that thrilled the home crowd and gave ticket holders more than their money’s worth. Hall Jr.’s comment had been made in competitive spirit. He was lambasted for it and much misquoted and misjudged, perhaps in part because of the reputation he had for showboating. What Hall Jr. actually said was far more gracious than the image reflected of him by the media at the time:

“I don’t even know how to play the guitar … I consider it the best relay race I’ve ever been part of. I doff my cap to the great Ian Thorpe. He swum better than I did.”

Gary Hall Jr - Olympic 2000 Trials

Gary Hall Jr at 2000 Olympic trials – Photo Courtesy: Peter Bick

At the end of a sensational week of racing in which Hall had made history with Ervin by sharing the 50m freestyle title in 21.98sec, Hall paid a further gracious tribute to Australia:

”When faced with a worthy opponent, it forces you to get your act together and step up. We were able to use that threat of being dethroned as the best swimming nation as motivation to reach a level that otherwise we might not have reached.”

In an interview with Raver Mag in Australia this week, Thorpe spoke of being in his element the he noted: “I loved swimming due to the movement of water around me, especially at high speed. When I swam freestyle at speed when I am at my best, you know the feeling when you catch a wave, and the wave takes over.”

He also discusses the following themes:

Motivation:

“Motivation is 50 percent starting something. The alarm goes off very early for training. You may be exhausted by as soon as you get out of bed, the chances of going back to bed are minimized because you already got up and started. Once you jumped in the shower, you know you will get there. The motivation when times are tough is looking at accomplishing your goals, and what the bigger picture is. In that situation, let all the hard work and training take you through all that.”

Technology he wished he’d had:

“The biggest difference I’ve noticed [since he raced] is being able to watch in real-time and getting all of the data analysis from that and being able to make modifications to what you are doing.”

Tips for kids:

“I’ve met athletes that trained extremely hard that never got to the top and I’ve met athletes that are incredibly talented that never get to the top. It’s having talent and working hard with that, and being the best at what you do,” he said.

“It’s important to have balance and remember that sport is only a part of your life. An athlete’s career is finite and it can end at any moment. You want to make sure that you have a plan B. It is also important to have fun with the sport.”

Depression and Mental Health:

“Competitively, I was mentally strong in my approach when I looked at things, but I still have a mental health issue. With time, you get better at managing yourself. It’s something that I used to struggle with but I’ve learned what I need to do. I may still have depression but I don’t have a depressed person’s mindset.”

Thorpe is the patron of two charities: ReachOut (mental health support)  and Aime Mentoring

The International Swimming League:

“I love it. I am pleased to see the top athletes from around the world embracing it. The only thing I don’t understand is the spacesuits that they wear. I don’t get that (laughter).”

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3 comments

    • Swimming World

      Thanks Kelly… re-inputted and they appear to be working now…

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