120 years, 120 stories (Part 52) : Ian Thorpe and the greatest freestyle ever


Swimming is certainly one of the biggest sports in the Olympics and more often than not we have seen swimmers pocketing more medals than in any other discipline. So in this edition of our Olympic Diaries that celebrates the 120 years of the Games with 120 fabled stories from the pages of Olympic history, we discuss the feats of the great Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe and of swimming in that era.

Ian James Thorpe was born in Sydney to a sports-family with his father being a district level cricketer and mother a domestic level netball player. Taken to the pools on account of his sister’s medical issues, Thorpe initially was allergic to chlorine and used to keep his head above the surface while taking a stroll in the pool. Even then the water-wonder was invincible in the aquatic yards due to his queer physicality that used to give him an edge over his rivals.

At 14 years, Thorpe eclipsed John Konrads to become the youngest ever Australian to make his international debut in the sports. After putting the pools on fire and breaking many world records, Australia’s one of the greatest swimmer debuted in the Olympics when the event was staged in none other than his home city Sydney at the turn of the millennium. True to public expectation, Thorpe did not disappoint.

On the very first day, Ian Thorpe gave Australia their first gold of the competition by beating Italy’s Massimiliano Rosolino with a new world record in the 400 m freestyle. Thorpe also anchored the final leg of the 4×100 m relay to help the hosts in winning their first-ever Olympic title of the event. He overcame Gary Hall in that chase – also achieved within standing world record time – and thus breaking the American’s monopoly over the event at the Olympics. The Australian’s air guitar mocking gesture was a significant mention of the wild celebration for this historic feat – a reply to Hall’s tall claim of smashing the Australians like the musical instrument.

Thorpe next went on to break the Olympic time in the 200 m freestyle heats, but came short of the world-record holding Dutchman and one of Thorpe’s established rivals – Pieter van den Hoogenband. Though this was the first time that the lightning speed Thorpedo finished his final slower than the heat, he made sure that he would never fell to Hoogenband again in this discipline. Thorpe made amends to this by giving his team a kickass start to the 4×200 m freestyle and pocketed the third yellow metal of the edition. Though he himself missed the world record narrowly, his teammates ensured the overall time to be re-written on the record book. The fifth and final of his commitments won him a silver in 4×100 m medley behind the Americans. With three golds in five podium finishes, Thorpe was the most successful Olympian of the 2000 edition.

After winning as many as six titles – with three individual records at 200 m, 400 m and 800 m respectively – at the World Championships at Fukuoka a year later, the Australian shark became the first to win that much in the particular event. Thus he helped Australia beat American in the overall tally for the first time in a major international event in almost five decades. After sharking through many such big events, the full body-suit clad swimmer reached Athens for the 2004 Olympics with speculation aplenty that the 6-feet-5-inches tall man would emulate Mark Spitz’s seven gold winning feat from the Munich Games.

However, the Aussie maintained that winning that many titles at the Games is not realistic and hence he cut short his programme to five events. However it was Michael Phelps who would go on to pocket six gold and a couple of bronze there before making a historic 8 out of 8 four years later at Beijing. Thorpe started his expedition with an uncharacteristic gold in the 400 m freestyle over his teenage rival Grant Hackett by just a split of a second which was a good three seconds beyond his world-record time. After a listless team event in the 4×100 m freestyle owing to unavailability of his regular teammates, Thorpe returned to form in the 400 m freestyle – billed by the media as the Race of the Century due to a strong pack of illustrious swimmers in the event – beating his nemesis Hoogenband comprehensively and leaving Phelps to third to make up for the loss before his home crowds four years ago.

Next, he ensured a silver for the team in the final leg of the 4×200 m freestyle after his compatriots flattered in the initial rounds – narrowing the margin from 1.48 s from his opening dive to 0.13 s at the point of finish. The four-time World Swimmer of the year eventually wrapped up the proceedings with a bronze from the 100 m freestyle where he was the last to qualify from the heats to start from the outer lanes. With this, he became the only person till date to achieve the Olympic podium place in the treble100m, 200 m and 400 m freestyle events.

Post Athens, Thorpe took a sabbatical from sports and skipped the major world events next year. Marred by poor discipline and inadequate training, his performance dipped. The depressed swimmer later called it a day from swimming before attempting a futile comeback years later in 2011. The swimmer known for his signature kicks in the pool waters with his massive 17-size feet flourished at a time when the parent body allowed full-body swim wear that tends to give the patron with better buoyancy through artificial means. As a result, world records fell at the drop of a hat before the technically supreme LZR Racers (which many like Michael Phelps donned at Beijing) – thus earning the attention of FINA for its timely disapproval. Nowadays, the rules permit aquatics to cover a maximum of waist to knee for men and shoulder to knee for women. Thorpe too found it difficult to cope up with the new rules in his late comeback.

Ian Thorpe’s career can be well summed up in his own words that he used in his autobiography “This is Me” that goes as – “For myself, losing is not coming second. It’s getting out of the water knowing you could have done better. For myself, I have won every race I’ve been in.

Photo by Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer