The Making Of Ian Thorpe: From A 25m Indoor Pool in Sydney’s West To The Top Of The World

GIVING THE WORLD RECORD A SHAKE: Ian Thorpe congratulated by coach Doug Frost after breaking the 200m freestyle WR at the '99 Pan Pacs. Photo Courtesy: Gregg Porteous (News Ltd).

The Making Of Ian Thorpe: From A 25m Indoor Pool in Sydney’s West To The Top Of The World

Ian Thorpe swam his way into the Olympic history books this week 20 years ago at the Sydney 2000 Games – a career that started in the humble surrounds of a 25 metre indoor pool in the city’s working class west.

Here, Ian’s long time coach Doug Frost reflects on the career of a boy who followed his sister Christina into the Padstow Indoor Pool and swam his way to the top of the world.

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SCHOOL POOL: Ian, aged 9 at the NSW PSSA carnival at Warringah Aquatic Centre. Photo Courtesy: Thorpe Family Collection.

The Padstow Days: “When Ian came to me he was eight-years-old….into a 25m indoor pool at Padstow….I had some good people working with me…coaches like Chris Myers and Jenny Ashpole….and from that little pool there was that much talent emerge.

“We had developed a really good program….it was amazing who came out of that pool…with the likes of Brooke Townsend, Christina Thorpe and Phil Bryant…and then Thorpie came along….

“In those early years…It was all about technique. That was the thing….and there was always recovery…

“I’ve got the utmost respect for the boy….the way he trained….Ian would be pushing himself beyond the limits…beyond my expectations of him…he even said to me on a couple of occasions…”I’m going to do this..” which was far more challenging to what I had asked of him….his response was way above my expectations….

“At the height of his powers, we did some 50m sets on Saturday mornings…when Hacky (Grant Hackett) used to come down from the Gold Coast; they trained together on a Saturday morning with a 50s set. It was when we moved the program to a 50m outdoor facility in Sutherland in Sydney’s south..

“Grant would come down for his promotional work and pop in and train with Ian…well you should have seen them.

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BROTHERS IN ARMS: Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett after the ’97 Pan Pacs 400m 1-2 in Fukuoka. Photo Courtesy: Darrin Braybrook (Sport The Library).

“It was like there was blood in the water….the two big boys going head-to-head….going head to toe….it was really exciting…..holding 24 seconds for 30 x 50s….depending on the time of year…and then along the way others developed as well…Kirsten Thompson (Sydney Olympic silver medallist in the 4x200m freestyle) is a prime example and under that situation…she was a 2:06 – 2:07 girl who we got down to 2 minutes.

“Craig Stevens was a backstroker and you could see what he did over 400, 800 and 1500m.”

The ’97 Pan Pacs in Fukuoka….“That was pretty amazing….when he was coming through when he made that first team at 14.

“He qualified for the Pan Pacs (in Fukuoka)….and I said to him (at the Trials in Adelaide) if his time of around 3:50 is good enough, he may be fast enough to make the team

Kieren Perkins and Daniel Kowalski were not available and Ian was third behind Hackett and Malcolm Allen in the 400m. His time was ranked higher than some of the other second placed rankings.

“And that also got me selected as a coach…at the Pan Pacs….Ian qualified for the final in Japan and Mal got sick and didn’t swim….

“Hacky beat Ian and they went 1-2…,they beat everyone…and that was fantastic and that was the last time Hacky beat Ian…as a 14- year-old. The next year was the Worlds in Perth in ’98 where he became the youngest world champion in history in the 400m freestyle.”

Ian '98 World Gold

WORLD CHAMPION AT 15: “That 400 in Perth, in my opinion was the best swim I ever witnessed,” Doug Frost. Photo Courtesy: Darrin Braybrook (Sport The Library).

Ian’s best swim: “That 400 in Perth, in my opinion was the best swim I ever witnessed when Ian won that the World Championships as a 15-year-old.

“That was the sign that he was capable of doing anything….that was the swim for me….a lot of people reflect on that.

“The Olympic gold medals are the pinnacle of course, the utmost.

“But his career really started at 15 when he won that World title. I thought then he must be a good chance in two years time”

The build up to Sydney 2000: “We had the ’99 Pan Pacs in Sydney….and we had a great year… the Pan Pacs all fell into place when he re-wrote the world record books in the 200 and 400..he was on a roll that week and that’s when Sydney really knew they had a kid who they could follow all the way to the Games…Ian and swimming were all over the front pages of the newspapers.

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WINNING COMBO: Coach Doug Frost and Ian Thorpe. Photo Courtesy: Sport The Library.

“Sydney was a very exciting time…and being at our home pool was special. We started training at Homebush tnot long after it was completed…so it was pretty familiar for us….because of my ranking we were able to get a couple of lanes there through NSWIS…we trained there three mornings a week…from ’97…it was like our home paddock…I knew all the staff. I had the run of the place a bit…and I had one of the best swimmers in the world training there….they looked after me….with Michael Scott who was involved with NSWIS…

The Winner is? “Sydney in 2000 was unbelievable…That experience, I believe will never be repeated; And not just the swimming but everything…the whole thing….even if we have another Olympics. I very much doubt we are going to have somebody quite as outstanding as Ian Thorpe….we might…but I don’t think so….the big thing is the timing of it…because of the build up…because it was Sydney…I don’t think it would ever happen, even if it was in Melbourne. As great a sporting city that it is….(or Brisbane in 2032)….Sydney was it….”

Memories of the opening night: “From memory we had seating on the deck and we stood pool side; I was excited, as excited as anybody.


OLYMPIC CHAMPION: At 17 Ian Thorpe is crowned Olympic champion. Photo Courtesy:

“When Ian won (the 400m), I remember the crowd responding and I looked round and I saw the Prime Minister John Howard; I saw the Governor General; I saw Paul Keating; I saw four or five other Olympic dignitaries standing there and I turned around and put my thumb up to them and they all yelled out “Hooray…hooray…” and then Johnny Howard yelled out “Well done Doug…”and I thought to myself ‘How does he know my name?’

“The boy from the bush. The boy from Orange…. how does he know me…how does he know my name…I was pretty proud.”

That’s Gold: “We had rehearsed the 400m quite a few times from when he won that World Championship in ‘98 when he was just 15…the way he trained (particularly) with all the negative splitting….and descend work.

“We might do 24x100s but they would always descend one-to-four or one-to-six…one-to-three some times…he would always be down on pace on the last one…..

“I thought because of the lead up and the build up, unless the pressure gets to him, there was no way anybody was going to beat Ian in the 400 freestyle and you know he wanted that more than anybody and he was a confident young man and (of course) very talented, super talented.

We didn’t talk it up and tried hard to protect him as best we could….But that particular period leading into the Olympics…that 12 months the media attention was amazing..and very distracting…extraordinary to be able to manage all that at that age I’ve got the utmost respect for him….and very proud of his results….it was very, very special…..

“We talked about the 400m every year…and he had a big input into it…and our goals. And I can tell you Ian’s goal times were faster than what he actually swam…I can tell you…..he got that 400 down to 3:40 but his goal time was 3:38….”

The final lap: “Personally from my point of view…the Thorpe family..his parents Ken and Margaret…their support…was amazing…his attitude was absolutely second to none…

“Ian trained like there was no tomorrow….his determination to improve….and to be the best was second to none….and the opportunity I had was something that was out of this world…and something that I believe will never be repeated….and I don’t think I could ever have replicated having a swimmer like Ian Thorpe in the program… I was blessed to have a good athlete…he was fortunate to come into a program that would give him good instruction in development ….and technique…he got the opportunity to learn good skills with technique…because that’s what our development was…”

“In the Bankstown area they have produced some great champions….Steve Waugh and Mark Waugh in cricket….a heap of rugby league footballers….it was working class western suburbs…

“And it all started in a 25m five-lane indoor pool at Padstow….and it produced one of the best swimmers the world has ever seen…”


THOSE FEET:  Ian Thorpe Photo Courtesy: SwimSketch

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