Ian Thorpe Part 1 – The Beginning: The Day The Thorpedo Launched at the World Champs (Video)

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Photo Courtesy: USA TODAY Sports

Ian Thorpe – The Beginning

In the first part of three features celebrating the career of the legendary Australian freestyler, we look back at the launch of “The Thorpedo” and how he became a world champion at 15. In the coming days, we’ll hone in on two achievements at the heart of the pantheon of a pioneer and how Thorpey’s pace-setting served as a magnet to other legends of the pool.

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Some looks are expected, almost ingrained in the mind. So, one of the things that jumps out about Ian Thorpe ahead of the final of the 400-meter freestyle at the 1998 World Championships in Perth is what he is wearing. Instead of being clad in the full-length bodysuit that became his trademark, Thorpe stands behind the blocks in a swim brief.

If his attire is unfamiliar, the outcome was not. En route to becoming the youngest male world champion in history, at a mere 15 years and three months, Thorpe put together a spectacular rally and ran down fellow Australian Grant Hackett, a man who would become a longtime rival. For Thorpe, the title was the official liftoff to a Hall of Fame career.

“I wasn’t too sure if I would be able to do it,” Thorpe said of his breakthrough triumph. “I can’t get over this. I thought I might have had a chance, but to win a world championship is unbelievable. It’s only second to the Olympics. I don’t think I’ll believe this for a while.”

Thorpe got his first taste of major international competition during the summer of 1997, when he raced as a 14-year-old at the Pan Pacific Championships. While Thorpe emerged from the 400 freestyle with a silver medal, it wasn’t his podium finish that was most glaring. Rather, the heaviest chatter revolved around the vast potential that Thorpe possessed, and what he might become.

Perth marked the last time Thorpe did not head into competition as a headliner. Sure, there was plenty of anticipation over the up-and-coming youngster, but greater attention was placed on others, notably Russian sprint legend Alexander Popov and American Jenny Thompson. Heck, Michael Klim and Susie O’Neill were greater attractions among Australians.

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Ian Thorpe – Photo Courtesy: Adidas

It took less than four minutes for all that to change. In short time, Thorpe was tagged with one of the great nicknames in the sport and the spotlight – fair or not – never stopped burning down brightly on his every stroke. Wherever Thorpe went, carried there by his famous size-17 feet, eyes followed, a swimming-crazed country eager to see what Boy Wonder would do next.

How Thorpe got to that position can be directly connected to what unfolded in Perth, and how he roared down the final length of the pool to earn a world title.

As the race opened, Hackett made it quite clear that he was seeking a wire-to-wire triumph. A rising star in his own right, the 17-year-old played a game of “come and get me” with the field. By the 100-meter mark, Hackett had a body-length advantage and was just off the world-record split of Aussie Kieren Perkins, who owned the global standard in 3:43.80.

Hackett kept the pressure on over the middle 200 meters and with a two-body-length edge at the 300-meter mark, it didn’t look like he could be caught. Even the Australian broadcasting crew made the comment that the outcome was not in question, only the official time. Yet, as Hackett was dominating, Thorpe had moved into second place and appeared sharp and fresh. Those characteristics showed themselves in the closing 100.

Powering through the water like a speedboat in Lane Five, Thorpe was within a body length of Hackett by the time the teenagers made the turn for home. And although they had fallen off Perkins’ world-record pace, the home crowd recognized it was in for a treat from two lads who would carry the freestyle mantle for Australia for years to come.

mentalhealth6LEIGH NUGENT WITH THORPE AND HACKETT

Ian Thorpe (middle) with Grant Hackett. Photo Courtesy: Swimming Australia

Thorpe moved to Hackett’s hip by the midway point of the last lap and crept to his shoulder with just a few more strokes, proof of Thorpe’s efficiency and ability to perform over the last lap like few in history. Fighting furiously to maintain his lead, Hackett was clearly hurting and yielding ground. He touched in 3:46.44, slightly off the 3:46.29 registered by Thorpe.

By the next year, Thorpe was the world-record holder in the event, and though Hackett would challenge him at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the 1998 World Championships marked the start of epic domination that included three consecutive world crowns, back-to-back Olympic gold medals and five world records, the last of which would still be the standard if not for introduction of seemingly motorized, shiny suits in 2008 and 2009.

Simply, Perth was the launching point of The Thorpedo.

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7 comments

  1. avatar
    Troy

    Slightly off-topic but does anyone know what Perkins’ 200 PB was?

    • avatar
      Jeff

      1:49.31 when he won gold in this even at the 1994 Commonwealth Games

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