Great Races: The Breakthrough of Ian Thorpe as a World Champion and Blooming Superstar (Video)

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Photo Courtesy: USA TODAY Sports

Great Races: The Breakthrough of Ian Thorpe as a World Champion and Blooming Superstar (Video)

As part of our Great Races Series, Swimming World takes a look back at the 1998 World Championships in Perth, Australia. It was where Ian Thorpe emerged as a world champion and took his first global step toward stardom.


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

If his attire was 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.


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.


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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2 years ago

A great champion, openly gay, and an inspirational figure to all the marginalized swimmers of the world.

James Nickoloff
James Nickoloff
1 year ago

I never saw this video before. Amazing last 100 and more amazing last 50. For me Thorpe’s greatest race was the 200m final in Athens–against Phelps and van den Hoogenband. I remember the thrill of watching it live.

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