Ian Thorpe, wasted talent, old bastards proved right

There’s nothing worse than an old fat bastard giving you the “I told you so” treatment, but here I go…..

When you live on an island, it’s a good idea to learn how to swim. That’s why all kids in an Australian school are encouraged to take swimming lessons from a very young age. In fact, most kids are old hands at swimming by the time school lessons come around.

There are swimming classes at local pools for toddlers and plenty of parents chuck their kids in at the deep end while they’re still in nappies. People who can afford it get hold of a local pool contractor and build one in their backyard to have their kids be deft swimmers. One such expert swimmer was Ian Thorpe.

Thorpe is/was one of our country’s greatest ever swimmers. His ascension to the top of the swimming heap began when he was just a schoolboy, selected for the Australian swimming team at just 14 years of age. That year, he won 10 gold medals in the Australian underage championships, but more remarkably, set six Australian records in the process.

His international debut in the Pan Pacific Championships (age 15) was marred by an appendix operation but just a year later he took his first two World Championship gold medals. Later that year he won four gold medals at the Commonwealth Games.

His first Olympics were in Sydney, in 2000. He took three gold, including the famous 4×100 relay win where the Australians smashed the Americans like guitars (a response to some US trash talk in the lead up to the event, see below). He also won two silver medals at the Sydney Olympics.

At the 2001 World Championships, he won six more gold. Another six at the 2002 Commonwealth Games and another five gold at the 2002 Pan Pacs.

Thorpe shone again in 2004 at Athens, taking home another four medals, half of them gold.

We shouldn’t forget the world records, either. 13 of them. Thorpe held world records in the 200, 400 and 800 meter freestyle events. They’ve all been broken since, but it was a wonderful achievement.

And all of that had happened before he turned 23 years old.

Every athlete (except maybe some pro basketballers) will tell you that the pinnacle of athletic achievement is the Olympic Games. In 2006, at age 24 and with the Beijing Olympics just two years away, Thorpe decided he’d had enough. He was feeling burned out and just didn’t have the desire to swim anymore. At just 24.

Thorpe has told a packed news conference in Sydney that he is moving on to a “next phase” in his life.

The Sydney and Athens gold medallist has said he decided on Sunday to leave the sport that had “catapulted” him into the limelight 10 years ago.

“I know there is a lot of people out there that want me to keep swimming. I only hoped that I wanted to swim half as much as other people want me to,” he has said.

“It would be dishonest to myself and to others (to continue) as I would be fulfilling other people’s dreams.”

He has decided to pursue other interests after realising competitive swimming was no longer his top priority in life.

“It’s like swimming lap after lap staring at a black line – then all of a sudden you look up” at the world around you, he has said.

“I started looking at myself, not just physically, but also as a person. I haven’t balanced out my life as well as what I should have.”

I remember thinking at the time, like quite a few other people, that this was a flawed decision. I believed 200% that he’d regret not using the full compliment of his talent while he had age and ability on his side.

His movements outside of swimming included some daft forays into television in programs that went absolutely nowhere. Things about travel, and fashion, IIRC. I’m sure there were other business ventures as well, but bottom line, Ian Thorpe is an average person in every respect aside from his ability to propel himself through the water at amazing speed.

The theory that he’d miss swimming was confirmed 18 months or so ago, when the Thorpedo announced that he was making a comeback, with a view to competing in the London Olympics this year, 2012. Everyone wished him well and I think we all wanted to see Thorpe back to his best. I know I did.

It’s a long way to the Olympic podium, however, even if you know the route.

Last night, at the Australian selection trials for the London Olympics, Ian Thorpe saw his Olympic dream go up in smoke. His best chance at being selected for the games was in the 200m freestyle. People were optimistic after his heat, too. He swam well and looked like he had more in the tank, slowing down in the final 50m in what people thought was a bid to preserve some energy for the semi-final later in the evening.

In that semi-final, Thorpe showed that the slow-down earlier in the day might have actually been fatigue rather than race craft. Thorpe came out well but started losing pace from the 100m mark, eventually finishing sixth and not even making it to the final. He ranked 12th out of the 16 swimmers who contested the semi-finals.

His own words told the story:

(It’s) the fairytale that just turned into a nightmare.

Ian Thorpe was the best swimmer in the world at his peak. I’m sure that Michael Phelps would have forced him into the background had Thorpe swum in Athens anyway, but if Thorpe’s legacy was injured by his decision to retire back in 2006, that injury revealed its full depth last night.

Thorpe abandoned a field in which he was the world’s best and at an age where he could have continued to inspire and achieve. I don’t know if he wanted “find himself” or if he was just ignoring the consequences of a big decision as if they didn’t matter (like many Gen-Y’ers before and since). At the end of it all, he “found himself” last night, trying – and failing – to take hold of the Olympic dream that he treated with such flippancy back in 2006.

We’ve all got decisions in our lives that we regret, things we’d like to take back years later, but we can’t. That much was clear from the look on Thorpe’s face and the stunned silence from the crowd last night.

The moral of the story – if you’re good at something, do it for as long as you are able to do it because you’re going to miss it like hell when it’s gone.

And a message to anyone with an extraordinary talent:

Those of us who are mere mortals, the people who cheer you on and can only dream of achieving the things you achieve, doing the things you can do – we don’t welcome you to the land of the mundane. We want you to stay remarkable. And once you become ‘normal’ like the rest of us, you’ll know why.


Please don’t think I’m saying that Ian Thorpe is/was a wasted talent. He was extraordinary. I just think he wasted a few prime years in his athletic career, a career that we all enjoyed watching. I wish him good luck in whatever it is he chooses to do now. I just wish we could have cheered him on in Beijing instead of watching Phelps go unchallenged though the whole meet.

If it’s any consolation, I won’t remember Ian Thorpe for last night’s failure. This is my best Thorpe memory – that “guitar” episode from 2000.

The Americans had never lost this relay event since it’s inclusion in the games program in 1964. They knew we were coming, though, and US swimmer Gary Hall Jr thought he’d up the ante by saying they’d “smash us like guitars” in the lead-up to the event. Make sure you watch to around the 3:40 mark or just before, for the Aussie response to that particular taunt.

This is how I’ll remember Ian Thorpe’s stellar career. I just hope we can all learn lessons from the way it ended, both in 2006 and 2012.

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  1. Oh thropey…. I’m waiting for the next swimming saviour. I’d love a totally unknown Aussie to smack phelps. He’s getting too big for his boots. Last quote of his after winning somewhere. “it’s amazing what training can actually do” no one likes a smart ass phelps. C’mon Aussies.

  2. Such a top sportsman would have received millions in sponsorship, prizes, commercial endorsements, etc., by the time he retired at the height of his career, itself a smart move, much better than lingering on and being forced out later in a defeated and battered state.

    I therefore think Ian Thorpe is still a winner, retiring earlier than, but still doing better financially than the vast majority of us.

  3. It’s arrogance, isn’t it, to think that you’ve done it all where you are and that you’ve got what it takes to succeed elsewhere.

    Unfortunately, it’s not that uncommon. Each one of us has had that moment when we’ve learned that you can’t ‘have it all’ in life.

    I’m glad that I didn’t learn on the world stage as Mr. Thorpe did.

  4. There’s another side to this story – the intense and all-consuming training required to compete at this level. It is literally the only thing around which you organize your life, your meals, your sleep, everything. You cannot have anything resembling a normal life and maintain this level of athletic excellence. The mystery to me is not that he retired, but that others keep doing this as long as they do.

    There’s a woman here in Minneapolis, a friend of a friend of mine (although I’ve never met her). She made it onto the U.S. women’s cross-country ski team, and finished quite respectably in a couple of events at the 2010 Winter Olympics (10th in one event, IIRC). I heard second-hand from my friend what her training regimen was, and just listening to the description made me feel sorry for her.

    So I think it’s a little odd for people sitting on their couches to express disappointment that an athlete did not dedicate their every waking hour from the age of 14 to 30 to training for a once-in-every-four-years athletic contest, just so we can be amused by it.

    1. Hey Greg,

      I know what you’re saying. We get all sorts of docco’s here backgrounding the work these guys put in and the early, lonely hours of the swimmer are well and truly ingrained. And I have to admit it felt a little unpalatable to sit and write this.

      But as I watched his 200m semi-final crumble, all I could think about was 2006 and how crazy it seemed back then for him to retire at his peak and miss that last Olympiad. I felt compelled to write about it.

      I know burnout. I know where he’s coming from (though of course, I don’t know the intensity of his physical training for the joy of such a high level of success). I just wish someone had counselled him to take a few months off, rather than retire.

      Uncomfortable? Yes. Repentant? No.

        1. Monty, it’s this big once every two years, otherwise no. Every two years we have the Olympics or the Commonwealth Games, which is when people get interested again. At those times, it’s huge. At other times, meh….

      1. “Ian Thorpe is an average person in every respect aside from his ability to propel himself through the water at amazing speed.”

        As an experienced marathon runner I can relate to any athlete needing to get off the merry-go-round of training, temporarily or permanently for a spell of normal life and I agree with Greg. It’s an awful cliche but life does have to have balance. Or have it restored.

        Coaches are charged with the most immense responsibility towards their athletes and steering them through a mine-field of training regimes, commercial interests, and plain old human development is un-imaginably difficult at the elite level. If Ian Thorpe hadn’t made that decision in 2006, who is to say that his career might not have imploded just as spectacularly?

        On the other hand, the desire to have another bash can also be very strong – after all if he wasn’t motivated (as well as talented) he would never have got as far as he did previously. Re-creating his former greatness was always going to be a gargantuan task for Ian Thorpe – and realistically, a tall order.

        Along side this though, part of the psyche of the Australian populus is very caught up in proving itself (a characteristic magnified by the media), both on the domestic and world stage “our very own” (deep breath) Cathy Freeman, Mark Webber, Cadel Evans, Nicole Kidman, Damian Oliver, Bernard Tomic – to name a few ( and not to mentioning any of the football codes). In my opinion this goes well beyond modern celebrities and stems from historical events which I will not mention in this forum. But as we are not involved in a world war at the moment (for example) our heroes are venerated in the sporting and acting spheres…and we get caught up in the notion that these people ought somehow to be transcendent in all walks of life, when in fact the vast majority are simply ‘average people’. Motivated, driven, committed, competitive yes, but they still put their trousers on one leg at a time. A current olympic marathon qualifier I know quite well, was jogging along at close to 5 min/km less than 12 months ago, on the way back from 3 months of injury. Compare this with sub 3.30 pace for the full race distance of 42km and you get the idea of the gap to be bridged.

        By all means athletes should be remembered for their great achievements; without doubt. But we shouldn’t begrudge them the right to make their own decisions about the length of their sporting careers, just because we want to ride the waves of their success.

        1. AND.. the effort it would have taken to finish 12th should not be underestimated.

          FINALLY …I hope that one day, we won’t be in a position where some (other) fat bastard is applying the same assertions about SAAB an irony which I doubt was lost to other readers ???

        2. Ian, I get what you and Greg are saying and to a very large extent, I agree completely. But here’s the bottom line – Ian Thorpe is highly unlikely to ever return to the top of the swimming heap again. Do you think he now regrets retiring in 2006, when he was at the top of the heap?

          I think the answer – the one he gets in the quiet moments, not the one he gives to the press – would be a resounding yes. He’ll acknowledge he needed the break, but he’ll wish he fought through it.

          Just my opinion, of course. There’s no denying what he’s done and the greatness that he achieved. I just think he could have eked more out of himself while in his prime and that he’s now starting to think about that.

  5. Ever hear of Dara Torres? She’s an American swimmer who’s competed in five Olympic Games (’84, ’88, ’92, ’00 and ’08). She’s won twelve Olympic medals (four gold, four silver, four bronze). At the age of 14, she set her first world record. At the age of 41, she became the oldest Olympic swimmer and medalist ever.

    In ’09, she had surgery on both of her shoulders and one of her knees was reconstructed. Undaunted by her surgery, she’s training hard, hoping she’ll qualify for the ’12 US Olympic team and be able to compete, at age 45, in her principal event, the 50 meter freestyle.

    “I don’t feel like I have much to prove any more,” she said in an interview that appeared in USA Today. “I’m just doing it because I love it.”

    She just might succeed in her quest to compete in a sixth Olympics. She’s blessed with a driven, type A + + personality and she has a lean, perfectly sculpted athletic body. (Imagine a female version of Michelangelo’s statue of David in Florence.)

    To your moral of the story about Ian Thorpe, Swade, Dara retired three times, returning each time because she missed her sport. That she was so successful when she made her comebacks makes her career almost freakish.

  6. This was a lengthily way to say getting old is no fairy tale for swimmers. Im not a sportsfan but its kinda interesting to be enlightened about what ‘s going on as far from trollhattan as one can be.

  7. Swade, you left the land of the mundane some time ago. Maybe you crossed Ian on his way in….

    No chance. We live on different planes. I’m just disappointed he didn’t take full advantage when he had the opportunity – SW