Ian Thorpe: How an introverte... | Australian Olympic Committee

Ian Thorpe: How an introverted kid from Milperra became the most talked about swimmer in the world

Author imageAOC13 Oct 2020
Schwimmen: Olympische Spiele Athen 2004, Athen; Freistil 200m / Maenner; Ian THORPE / AUS, gewinnt Gold 16.08.04. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images)

At just 17 years old, Ian Thorpe entered the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games with the hopes of a nation on his shoulders. He had recently broken 10 World Records and two years earlier, at just 15, had become the youngest-ever World Champion. 

The teenager responded with a performance that would go down in history, when he became the most successful athlete at the Games winning three gold and two silver medals, but the Milperra born super-fish had to battle through illness and the pressure of being the most talked about introvert of the Games, before reaching the pinnacle of international swimming. 

Thorpe wasn’t the first of his family to take to the water, it was in fact his sister, Christina, who also swam for the Australian National Team that inspired him.  

Christina, originally a netballer, began swimming as rehab for a broken arm. Ian would watch on as his big sister competed at local swimming carnivals but found himself wanting to get off the sidelines and into the pool. 

“I remember watching on, being really bored and my mum said to me, ‘if you train properly once a week, you could probably swim at one of these things too’,” Thorpe said.  

“I thought to myself, that sounds really good.” 

From such humble beginnings, Thorpe went on to amass nine Olympic medals, including five gold, - the most won by any Australian, along with 11 World Championship gold, 10 Commonwealth Games gold and nine Pan Pacific Championship gold. 

What sets an elite athlete apart from mere mortals is their ability to overcome and push through both physical and mental barriers and Thorpe was no exception.  

He spent the first few years of his career battling through unexplained illness and as a child, being under the water would cause pain and respiratory issues.

“When I first started swimming, the water would hurt my nose so much that I’d have to swim a water polo stroke to avoid my head going under the water,” Thorpe explained. 

“I started using a nose plug to see if it would help, but I was still getting sick.” 

His mystery condition caused both bronchitis and bronchial pneumonia which would lead to regular bouts of illness and weeks off training until he was eventually diagnosed with an allergy to chlorine. 

At the time, Thorpe’s mother, Margaret was given two choices and they depended on how important swimming was going to be for Thorpe. 

“I still remember the specialist saying to my mum, ‘Look, if you think your son’s going to be a champion, then you need to have his adenoids removed because they’re the cause of the problem’,’’ he said. 

“But, I still have my adenoids, so thanks for the belief mum,” Thorpe laughed. 

In the end, it made no difference, the youngster was undeterred and determined to make history with or without his adenoids. 

“I enjoyed swimming so much and just loved how I felt in the water.

“As a kid I loved diving to the bottom of the pool, exploring and creating my own adventure.” 

Even though his enjoyment came from the childlike fun of being in the pool, his aspirations were about more than just exploring and adventuring. 

“From a very young age, my life my goal was to become an Olympic swimmer, but my dream was to become an Olympic Champion,” Thorpe said. 

“There was a difference between the two. 

“A goal is something you set for yourself which is challenging, but can be accomplished by doing all that you can to prepare for it, whereas a dream is something that you feel a little bit embarrassed to tell anyone about,” he continued. 

“It’s like saying, ‘I want to be an astronaut’ or ‘I want to be in the group that cures cancer’, something where you question whether or not you should even say it out loud or if you’re the kind of person who should be aiming that high.” 

Eventually, Thorpe’s adenoids shrunk, easing his problems under the water and by the time he was a teenager, people had started to take notice of his incredible speed and power that were reinforced by his 190 cm arm span and size 17 feet. 

As a 12-year-old, Thorpe captained the NSW team at the 1994 Australian Primary Schools Championships where he competed in 13 events, setting NSW under-age records in all, then in 1996, his sister Christina came second in the 400m freestyle for the Atlanta 1996 trials which their coach, Doug Frost sent Ian to for the experience.

Ultimately, a shoulder injury prevented Christina from continuing the sport and she retired two years later. 

In 1997, Thorpe became the youngest Australian to medal at the Pan Pacific Championships when the 14-year-old won silver just two months after an appendectomy.

Then, in 1998, he became the youngest World Champion in history when he won the 400m freestyle world title in Perth. 

At the same meet, he bolstered the 4 x 200m freestyle relay team to gold, Australia’s first gold medal in the event in over 40 years. 

Between his World Championship debut in 1998 and his Olympic debut at Sydney 2000, Thorpe broke 10 World Records and won four Commonwealth Games gold medals.

Australia went into Sydney 2000 with both the advantage of a home Games and a homegrown world record holder and waited with bated breath to see if their hometown hero would rise to the top. 

 Thorpe felt both the positive and negative effects of the support leading into his Olympic debut. 

“It was nice to have the home crowd advantage with so many people supporting and cheering you on, that all creates the performance, but real life happens in between,” Thorpe shared. 

“In the lead up to the Olympics I’d be at a shopping centre and people would say to me, ‘I won tickets to the first night of the swimming, I can’t wait to see you win your first Olympic gold medal. 

“Even though I tried to stay out of that world and in my own bubble, there was no way of getting around the fact that people really cared about Sydney 2000 and these races. 

“People wanted to see athletes be successful and even with the best intentions, there was always that fine line between encouragement and putting pressure on someone, but in saying that, the pressure elevates your anxiety and makes you more aware of how important this competition is, which can produce an even better result than what you would get at something like your local swim carnival and that pressure raises you to a different level.” 

Along with the well-intentioned support of the crowd, Thorpe also had to manage the attention of the media. 

“It definitely didn’t make it easier,” he said when asked how the media surrounding him effected his preparations. 

“But I’d accepted going into Sydney 2000 that there was a lot of hype around me. 

“I’d just become World Champion two years beforehand and I went into the Games as the world record holder in two events, so I knew the pressure was there and I was preparing for it. 

“I made a decision to avoid reading or watching anything about myself in the lead up, so that I could just focus, but I remember just after the 200m freestyle semi-final, they printed this image of myself and my competitor with what time the race was showing on television,” he continued.  

“Even though I tried to avoid it, you still know what’s going on around you and it isn’t helpful overall but you do understand that the race is important to people, so they needed to know that information.

"As an individual where you’re trying to create a bubble around your performance, outside factors like that can push you a little bit over the edge.” 

Thorpe’s first gold medal came on the opening night of Olympic competition where he broke his own world record in the 400m freestyle in a time of 3:40.59 becoming a teenage Olympic Champion. 

And mere hours later, he would etch his name into the history books again in one of the most famous Olympic relay races ever.

He combined with teammates Michael Klim, Chris Fydler and Ashley Callus to take down the previously untouchable US team in a world record time of 3:13.67. 

The team celebrated by shredding on air guitars, in response to a comment from US team member Gary Hall Jr who said his team would “smash them (the Australian men’s relay swim team) like guitars.” 

“It was a few weeks out from the Olympics when I heard about Gary’s comment,” Thorpe said. 

“At that stage I was more concerned with times, and statistically, we never should have won that race, but for some reason Australia believed that we could,” he continued. 

“I believed that we could, and the rest of the team believed that we could, but we just didn’t know how. 

“After winning the event the year before at the Pan Pacs, we worked hard on things like changeovers and speed in the lead up to the Olympics. 

“From there, we realised that we’d each have to elevate our own individual performances to have any shot at beating this US team.” 

And whether it was the added motivation of Hall’s comments, or the extra hours put in at the pool, the Aussie team lifted themselves to a history-making level.  

Their triumph over the US was the first time that the Americans had ever been beaten in the Olympic event. 

“I think because of how connected we were to each other, to the wider swim team and to the Australian fans, that’s where we found ‘it.’ Thorpe explained. 

“It wasn’t just the country who believed in us, it was the entire Team.  

“If we knew the country thought we were going to win the race, it would have been overwhelming, but when people who knew swimming intimately believed that we could win, it was like we were representing them as well.”  

When asked whose idea it was to play their victorious air guitars, Thorpe raised his hand. 

“It was spur of the moment,” he explained.  

“After we won, I whispered to Michael, ‘I think we should play guitars right now,’ because we had the entire crowd cheering, but I was so exhausted at the time that apparently it looked like I was playing more of a ukulele,” he laughed. 

“After that race I could barely lift my arms, so Michael was probably our best air guitarist.” 

After the race, there was no bad blood between the teams, Hall was actually the first to congratulate the Australian Team on their win. 

“Gary Hall Jr. is actually a really nice guy, even though the comment he made sounded really arrogant at the time,” Thorpe shared.  

“But it was just one of those statements that conjured up something else and for us and to finish the race with the air guitar response, just capped off a moment in Australian sporting history.” 

After completing a successful home Games where he graced the podium five times, Thorpe was honoured with carrying the Australian Flag at the Closing Ceremony, the perfect note to end on after missing out on participating in the Opening Ceremony. 

“Not walking in the Opening Ceremony is something every swimmer has to face, because we race on the first day of competition," Thorpe explained.

“I was never going to be able to walk in the Opening Ceremony and be in my best shape to compete, so to be able to carry the flag in the Closing Ceremony most definitely made up for that, especially knowing how the country had received the Olympic Games and to see how much support there was. 

“Australia and Sydney really did an incredible job of showing not only what sport can be for Australians, but what it can be for the rest of the world who still look at us when it comes to the Olympics, because of how successful Sydney 2000 was.” 

Thorpe defines himself as “an introvert who could occasionally perform as an extrovert,” and post-Sydney 2000 Thorpe said he sometimes struggled with always being in the public eye.

“It’s one of the best things, that pretty much everyone knows you,” Thorpe said. 

'But in everyone knowing you, it means that when you go outside someone's always got an eye on you, someone's always watching.  

“For myself, at times I'd become a bit of a recluse in what I was doing, because I didn't feel that I had the privacy I would have liked,” he continued. 

“I understand that when I'm at a competition or at public event, there would be people there, but I never understood why there were paparazzi at my house. That was odd.  

“It hadn't happened to a swimmer before, I don't think, and it just it changed the context of what I was doing. I wasn't just a swimmer who was training and competing around the world, I had a different role that I had to do as part of being a swimmer.” 

Although he had the expectation of a nation and the eyes of the world on him, Thorpe said that his reasons for pushing to such great heights, were personal. 

“That’s very easy, I swam for myself,” he said when asked who inspired him to pursue the sport to such greatness. 

“It takes a team performance in swimming, but it was my own motivation of wanting to be the best swimmer that I could potentially be.  

“My coach was obviously there helping me so were my parents, so were other people, but the ultimate responsibility lay on me and I actually would struggle to find motivation when it came from other places.  

“It's a really selfish act to want to be someone who exceeds in sport because you have to absorb so much from so many other people who contribute to the sport, and that's why I say it was for me, because if I didn't have that, if I didn't want to be the best in the world, if I didn't want to be able to push the limits of swimming, I wouldn't have been able to bring the people around me, with me.” 

Thorpe went on to win a further four Olympic medals including his fourth and fifth gold, a silver and a bronze at Athens 2004. 

In 2006, he announced his retirement and since then has used his platform to inspire and give back to humanitarian causes, acknowledging the platform sport has given him. 

“As a human being, I’m most proud of my work on social justice causes, not only in Australia, but also around the world,” he said. 

“For me, giving back has always been something that has been tremendously important and I have been acknowledged for my work in philanthropy, but the more important part of it is to have an understanding and an appreciation for the advantage that I have. 

“I acknowledge the privilege that I have to be able to work with people who may be struggling more than me, and may have a different life story to what I have, and to find inspiration in them as well. 

“What I've accomplished doesn't make me a better human being than anyone else and I've learnt that through my experience, and I think that's given me a level of compassion that has also helped myself. 

“My experiences have taught me that I want to travel along the winding road rather than the straight road and make sure that I have a level of inspiration in whatever I do, that I'm always passionate about it,”  he continued. 

“But when I think of what I'd like my life to be when I’ve reached the end of it, however long away that is, is that I’m known as someone who treated people with dignity, that I had humility, and respect.  

“I'd like to be someone who has the ability to not only inspire young athletes to be the best that they are, but to inspire young people around the world to be the best version of themselves. 

“It’s a challenge every day, but I am trying to work on the perfect me, which I’m never going to get to, but that doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying.” 

Liana Buratti

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