It’s been too long since we last had a Hall Of Fame induction. So let’s have one today. Our current inductee is one of the greatest sportsmen I have ever had the chance to witness, and one of my favorite people in sports regardless of his prowess in competitions – the greatest swimmer of the last 20 years not having the initials M. P. – Ian Thorpe.
As I previously wrote, one must admit – I only started watching the Swimming World Championships in 2009. Which means I missed Thorpe’s big coming out party in the 1998 edition in Perth, his glorious 2001 campaign in Fukuoka and his awesome 2003 performance (in Tel Aviv. Just kidding, in Barcelona). By the time I plugged to watch Berlin 2009, Thorpe was already 3 years officially retired, having hung his swimming trunks in 2006.
However, I never missed the swimming events in the Olympic Games, and so I was first introduced to this colossal swimmer during the Sydney Olympics, on his home turf. This was a really great story. Here is a hometown hero (Thorpe was born in Sydney), a 17 years old boy who was blessed by nature (and allah) with such physical gifts, who moves through the water like a real torpedo and leads the Australians to top the Americans in the swimming medals table. Well, actually the last part isn’t true, although I remembered it as such. In fact, the Australians were second, almost as always. They did top the Americans in the World Championships in Fukuoka, a year later, so perhaps I was mixing the two events in my memory.
But anyway, Thorpe was THE star of the swimming pool, winning a total of 5 medals – 3 golds (400m, 4×100 freestyle, 4×200), and 2 silvers (200m freestyle, 4×100 medley), and leading the Australians to their first gold in the 4×100 relay in too many years.
But frankly, I really don’t remember the fine details. I wasn’t even 14 years old back then, and although I remember the track & field competitions from those Olympic Games very well, I find it difficult to reconstruct the results and more specific details from the swimming events. After all, it was the first time I ever watched competitive swimming.
However, my memories from the 2004 Olympics are very good. After I discovered the great Ian Thorpe in the 2000 Olympic Games, I read about him in the newspapers (the internet wasn’t invented yet!) and so I read (and later watched) about the disaster that happened during the Australian Olympic trials. In his go-to event, the 400m freestyle, Thorpe fell out of the blocks before the swim even begun, thus earning a DQ. In an event where he (and Australia) were almost guaranteed a golden medal in Athens! Now that was a real national tradegy right there.
The possibility that Thorpe wouldn’t be able to compete in the event in Athens caused a huge amount of pressure on the swimmer who earned the second spot (after the great Grant Hackett) – Craig Stevens, to relinquish his spot in favor of Thorpe, which he eventually did. At the time I was rooting for Thorpe wholeheartedly. Of course, we all believe that everyone should be given an equal opportunity. Ian wasn’t wronged or tricked in some way – he got DQ’d all by himself. And so it was really unfair to Stevens that he was pressured to give up his place. But I was (and still am) also a huge fan of Thorpe. And I thought that everything that can be done in favor of one of my favorite athletes – should be done. As long as it’s legal of course. Gee, what a dilemma. Of course, it was in the Australian’s interests to have Ian on the team and not Stevens, if they were planning on winning as many medals as possible. And so after some time it was announced that Stevens is indeed giving up his spot in favor of Ian.
Anyway, back in the summer of 2004 I was a very active user in one of the forums on Israel’s most popular forum platform – tapuz.co.il (the internet was finally invented by then). That forum was dedicated to a popular TV show broadcasted back then, and I got hooked up – both to the program and to the forum. It was, as I already mentioned somewhere, the time between the end of school (and all the final exams that come along with it) and the start of the army. I didn’t have any real commitments, and so I was able to dedicate much time to write in the forum. However, when the Olympic Games in Athens started, my attention shifted to them, and the time I spent in the forum diminished. BTW, my user name for that forum platform (which I still use, mostly for music forum – to this day)? Ivan Pedroso. His time to be inducted into the HOF will come too.
After watching the competitions (mainly the swimming and the track & field) I was often so fired up and inspired by them, I had to relieve that huge amount of energy and excitement bubbling up inside of me. I talked about them with my friends, obviously, but they didn’t watch all the competitions like I did. And so I found a solution in writing about the competitions in the forum. A forum which was dedicated to a TV series, right?
I was already known there as a sports fanatic (after all, Euro 2004 was only a couple of months before that), and so my daily long posts about the Olympics weren’t unexpected. In fact, they were so long that they had a name of their own: “Micha Scrolls”. In Hebrew it sounds much better – “Megilot Miha” (Miha being am accepted shortened version of my name). And so I flooded everyone with information about the competitions, and one of the athletes whom I talked about the most was Ian Thorpe. I wrote about him so enthusiastically (and his performances were, after all – great) that the people in the forum came to really know who he was. Or at least I like to think so.
I think that those Olympics were in a way even more special and more historical for Thorpe than the Sydney ones. And the event that kicked them off was that same 400m freestyle, where Thorpe and the great distance swimmer Grant Hackett were the clear-cut favorites. Ian started the race not in his usual fashion, and wasn’t as dominant as one would expect. Perhaps it was the DQ scandal before the Olympics, who knows.
But in the end he did it. He didn’t win with his usual huge margin, and Hackett came within 0.26 seconds of beating him, but still – Thorpe won. And boy, was that an emotional victory! Back home, I was sure (and even wrote so in the forum) that Ian shed a few tears. And when I look at the video now I still think so. However, Thorpe denied crying but admitted that he was indeed very emotional.
Anyway, the whole affair paid off – Australia went 1-2 and its national hero retained the gold medal. In my Olympic posts I wrote back in 2004 in the forum I wrote that Thorpe intends to give the gold medal to Stevens, as a token of gratitude, but I couldn’t find any support for that now, when I did a thorough 30 seconds search on the internet. So who knows.
Thorpe’s second final, the 4x100m freestyle, was a disappointment. Australia won the event 4 years ago, but here in Athens they finished only 6th, despite a great split by Thorpe, who was the last Australian – 48.14 seconds. That swim also featured the second greatest relay split ever, by Peter van den Hoogenband, who simply flew through the water in an unheard-of 46.79, more than a whole second faster than any other split in the final. That was simply mind-fucking.
But Thorpe still had the 200m freestyle, in an event that was dubbed as “The Race of The Century”. With Thorpe, Hackett, van den Hoogenband and Phelps – this was an event that transcended the world of swimming. The build-up was huge, and this event was deemed as one of THE highlights of the Athens Olympics.
The race itself, as you can see in the video, was great, but it failed to deliver “The Race Of The Century”. It was a great battle between van den Hoogenband and Thorpe, but Phelps and Hackett were out of contention for the gold. Phelps was a solid 3rd throughout the race, and Hackett somewhat disappointed by finishing 5th. However, Hoogenband and Thorpe did put on a show. Peter led throughout the first 150m, but I thought that he opened too fast – he was waaaaaay under the WR time. And sure enough, Thorpe used this craziness to pass him with the turn to the final 50m, and held on to victory. His 5th and final Olympic gold, and a very important one. 4 years ago he lost to Peter and now he returned the favor and did the 200-400 double. A great victory!
A day after that, a marvelous anchor leg by Thorpe was almost enough to beat the Americans in the 4x200m freestyle relay. His time – 1:44.18, was a full 1.35 seconds faster than the second best split out of everyone in the final (Klete Keller, USA’s last swimmer), but alas – he missed the gold by a mere 0.13 seconds.
The last event in the pool was the 100m freestyle final, to which he qualified from the 8th and last qualifying place in the semis. Let the video speak for itself.
Did you fucking see that?! Thorpe won the bronze medal from the 8th lane! And after he was 6th at the 50m mark! Damn! I always knew Ian as a middle distance swimmer, but here he showed that he has some serious sprint skillz as well, when he became the first and so far the only man in history to earn medals in the 100, 200 and 400m freestyle in the same Olympics.
He was only 21 years old, but already a winner of 9 Olympic medals. I was sure we are going to be treated to more great performances by him in the years to come. But alas, it was not meant to be. Those Athens Olympics were his final great moments, and I never saw him swim again. Two years after that he announced his retirement.
Only many years later, when I read his autobiography, I realized he was battling through awful depression. Sometimes when people read about depression they shrug it off. “It’s not like he’s injured or something”, they say. But the thing is – depression can be as debilitating as any physical injury. Thorpe wrote in his book that his depression led him to seriously consider suicide and that he was starting to really develop a plan of how to do it. I can really imagine all those demons running inside his head, and it takes a lot of courage to admit that – especially if you are considered one of the greatest athletes ever in your sport.
Another thing that took even more courage to do was for him to come out as gay. This happened really recently, and in his book – which was written in 2012, he denies such accusations. One can understand him, I bet the pressure was huge. However, the fact that he DID come out – is nothing short of amazing. As of now Ian is the greatest athlete ever to come out and openly proclaim himself as gay. One can only hope that his example will inspire others to do the same. It’s amazing how this issue is repressed in professional sports. Judging by the overall percentage in the population, there is a HUGE amount of professional footballers, NBA players, tennis players, etc., who are still living inside the closet and are afraid/ashamed to come out. It simply cannot be otherwise, if one follows basic statistics. So Thorpe’s move was great and I salute him. My admiration for him, which I thought has already reached its peak – managed to grow some more.
Now, why do I like Ian so much? I don’t really know. Or better yet – I can’t put it into words. I guess it’s for a number of reasons. First of all – he’s a great swimmer, and his achievements put him in the top 5 all-time and as the greatest swimmer of the past 20 years not named Michael Phelps (in case you thought the M. P. from the beginning of the post is for Marcel Proust).
Just how great he is? We all know the story of the suits that changed the face of swimming world records. The WR’s were falling down like in an epileptics convention. Times that looked imaginary just a couple of years ago looked pretty average now. However, even with all the advanced suits technology, Paul Biedermann managed to break Thorpe’s longstanding WR in the 400m freestyle by a mere 0.01 seconds, during the 2009 SWC in Rome. Please take a few seconds to digest that – only a difference of 0.01 seconds prevented Thorpe from still owning the 400m WR, which by now would have easily been the longest-standing WR in the books. Ian set it back in 2002, and as of now it is still the second fastest time evar for that distance. Again – losing the top spot by a mere 0.01 seconds. I mean – Damn!!
In addition, Ian has always been a very likeable figure. Perhaps it’s his permanent shy smile and quiet demeanor. He was never the brash, Milorad Čavić type. That always plays a part. And I first came to know him as a local young hero in Sydney 2000. Now, surely all these things played a part, but I feel like they don’t paint the whole picture. Being a sports fan isn’t something that can be explained rationally. And perhaps you don’t pick your favorite athlete, you get picked by him.
Ian attempted a comeback in 2011. It didn’t go well and I followed it half-heartedly. I knew it wasn’t the real Ian and so I didn’t know how to feel about it. I mean – do I want to see my favorite swimmer of all-time back in the pool? Of course! But will it be the same old Thorpe? Do I want to watch him barely manages to qualify for the Olympics and there to be a shadow of his old self? Not really to both questions… I wanted to preserve the memories of the great swimmer I remembered, the swimmer who could look Michael Phelps in the white of the eyes and beat him in the 200m freestyle.
Thorpe’s comeback was unsuccessful. Back at the time it only made me revere Michael Phelps more, for his own über-successful comeback. But having read Thorpe’s book, which details this comeback attempt, I realize that Thorpe needed it for himself, for his own peace of mind. So now I’m glad that he did it.
Ian is still very young, only 32 years old. But it feels like he’s 40 at least, which is probably what he is in swimming years – considering the ultra-young age at which he started competing in the big championships. His career didn’t really last long – just 7 years from his appearance at the 1997 Pan-Pacific Championships to Athens 2004. But it was so packed and so thrilling that it seems like he had a career more than twice as long. I know that it was a joy and a great feeling watching this magnificent swimmer compete, and now he is forever enshrined in the blog’s Hall Of Fame.