The world changed 22 years ago when two planes hit the World Trade Center in New York, and of swimming’s all-time greats was almost a victim of the attacks.
Ian Thorpe was in the city on the morning of September 11, 2001, and was planning on being at the World Trade Center (WTC) when the first plane hit.
The five-time Olympic champion went for an early morning run and was headed to the WTC’s observation deck when he realized he had forgotten his camera. He returned to his hotel room to get it when the attacks occurred.
“I went down there on the morning of 9/11,” Thorpe said, according to Compete Network. “It was early in the morning and I went for a run. I grabbed a coffee and walked back to my hotel room, and literally in that period of time the planes hit. It was a very, very close call.”
“I had a friend, Michelle, who was staying with me,” he said. “She was the one who was going to get up and go for a run. I was telling her to wake me up because we were going to go to the World Trade Center together.
“I said we could go up the World Trade Center in the morning and then you do the Empire State Building at night. But in the end, I was the one that went down there. With things like that, you realize it’s fate. Some things were meant to be, and I realize I am very lucky.”
Thorpe, who was just 18 at the time, was in NYC to pursue his interests in fashion and talk about his recent swimming success, including making an appearance on The Jay Leno Show.
The now 40-year-old was less than two months removed from a standout performance at the 2001 World Championships in Fukuoka, where he won six gold medals and set four world records in the men’s 200 free (1:44.06), 400 free (3:40.17), 800 free (7:39.16) and on Australia’s 800 free relay (7:04.66).
That came on the heels of a memorable Olympic debut on home soil in Sydney, where he won gold in the men’s 400 free, anchored the Aussie men’s 400 free relay home to victory in epic fashion, and earned a third gold in the 800 free relay while adding additional silvers in the 200 free and 400 medley relay.
Following his brush with fate in September 2001, Thorpe went on to find continued success in the sport, highlighted by his performance at the 2004 Olympics in Athens where he won the Race of the Century in the men’s 200 free over defending champion Pieter van den Hoogenband and American phenom Michael Phelps, and he also defended his title in the 400 free with a tight win over countryman Grant Hackett.
Thorpe, who also won silver in the 800 free relay and bronze in the 100 free at the 2004 Games, claimed three more World Championship titles in 2003 and set a world record of 3:40.08 in the 400 free at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, a mark only eclipsed in 2009 by Germany’s Paul Biedermann (by .01) in a super-suit. Thorpe’s time remains the fastest in history in a textile suit.
Thorpe ultimately retired in 2006 after withdrawing from the Commonwealth Games due to bronchitis, and made a comeback attempt in 2011 with his eye on the 2012 Olympics in London, though he fell shy at the Australian Olympic Trials.
He has continued to make a positive impact since retirement by being an advocate for same-sex marriage in Australia, and has been open about his struggles with depression, the difficulty he had navigating life as an elite athlete as a gay man, and in 2017, he presented a two-part documentary to shed light on the effects of bullying.
According to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, the September 11 attacks left 2,977 dead across New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania.