Ian James Thorpe, also known as the Thorpedo, was born on October 13, 1982 in Milperra, a suburb of Sydney, Australia. He is the most decorated male Australian Olympian, and was the most successful athlete at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. In his youth, Thorpe followed his older sister to the pool, where he promptly discovered a chlorine allergy. Only with the help of a nose-clip was he able to compete with his face in the water – and then the Thorpedo was born.
Early international competition
After outgrowing his allergy, Thorpe went on to captain the New South Wales team during the Australian Primary Schools Championships in 1994. In 1996, his sister qualified for the Atlanta Olympics, and their coach, Doug Frost, sent Thorpe to qualifiers in Sydney to give him a taste of competing under the national eye, but it wasn’t until he qualified for the 1997 Pan Pacific Championships in Fukuoka, Japan that Thorpe entered the international spotlight.
Unfortunately, he had his appendix out two months before competition, which disrupted a vital part of his training season. He did not medal in his first individual event, the 200 free, however, he qualified for the 4 x 200 free relay, for which the Australian team earned a silver medal, making Thorpe the youngest Australian to medal at Pan Pacs. He was 14 years old. He went on to touch second in the 400-meter freestyle, coming in behind fellow Australian youth, Grant Hackett, at 3:49.64 – a time that would have won silver at the Atlanta Games.
1998 FINA World Championships and 2000 Olympic Games
The following January, Thorpe qualified for World Championships in Perth. He once again participated in the 4 x 200 free relay, swimming the third leg and gaining a strong lead, which allowed the anchor to secure gold – the first Australian gold in the event at an international competition since 1956. Later, Thorpe once again faced Grant Hackett in the 400 free, this time passing him on the last stroke.
After 1998 Worlds, Thorpe was catapulted into the public eye. He became the representative for the Children’s Cancer Institute. That September, he participated in the Commonwealth Games, where he won four gold medals, positioning himself as a major figure in the international swimming community. He cemented his place by breaking his first world record during 1999 Short Course World Championships in Hong Kong, and, four months later, claiming three long course WRs during Pan Pacific Championships in the 200 free, 400 free, and 4 x 200 free relay. His success in Sydney brought Adidas running, which caused a lengthy controversy with Speedo – the Australian team sponsor. This continued up to the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, for which Thorpe qualified to compete in both of his signature events in world record time.
At the Games, Thorpe upheld his mid-distance title, snatching the gold in the 400 free and touching under his previous record. In the 200 free, Pieter van den Hoogenband – the Dutchman – passed him on the last 50 of the final, after setting a world record during semi-finals, but Thorpe played an integral part in both freestyle relays, which Australia won at WR pace. Unbeknownst to Thorpe, his performance in Sydney greatly impressed upon another up-and-coming youngster: Michael Phelps.
2001 World Championships
In 2001, Thorpe returned to Japan for World Championships. He added the 800-meter freestyle to his event list, thus competing in a total of seven events (the freestyle events, excluding the 1500, and all three relays). He faced up against van den Hoogenband, and took back his 200-free crown with a burst of energy after the last turn. Van den Hoogenband raised his rival’s arm in the air at the end of the race signaling respect for his record-breaking performance. Though Thorpe did not medal in the sprint free, he won his other six events, breaking four world records in the process. He left Japan tailed by rumors that in 2004 he might attempt to equal or defeat Mark Spitz’s record for most medals won at a single Olympics (seven).
While on holiday in New York City in September, Thorpe narrowly avoided becoming a 9/11 statistic when his plans to visit the World Trade Center were disrupted by his own touristy disorganization. He has been quoted as saying the experience motivated him to continue swimming – which, in the month after the Olympics, he had neglected.
2002 Pan Pacific Championships
He continued to churn out medal-winning performances at both the Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacs in 2002. However, he broke fewer records, and tension mounted in his relationship with Frost, his longtime coach, who was pushing him to improve, while Thorpe’s interest in the sport came from personal enjoyment. Following these arguments, Thorpe changed his workout routines, causing him to gain muscle weight in the upper body – not an effective strategy for elite competition. He rebuffed media inquiries regarding his goals for the 2004 Olympics – specifically the capture of Spitz’ record, while Frost boasted Thorpe’s abilities.
After Thorpe’s successful but record-less Pan Pacs competition, he split from Frost, joining forces with his assistant coach, Tracey Menzies. This drew serious criticism, and Thorpe entered into a year of constant disparagement regarding his pre-Athens training.
2003 FINA World Championships
At 2003 Worlds in Barcelona, he came away with three gold medals, a silver, and a bronze, though he still lacked record breaking times. Meanwhile, American Michael Phelps had begun to make his own name, capturing several records in Barcelona. In response to this success, Speedo offered Phelps a million US dollars to match or take down Spitz’s record, an indirect challenge to the other athlete who might have had a chance. Thorpe claimed it couldn’t be done and dropped out of the 200IM (which would have been his seventh event). While Thorpe may have made the statement to protect his reputation, Phelps nonetheless took it to heart. In comparison, the mighty Thorpedo seemed to have fallen from his pedestal.
2004 Olympic Games
During Olympic Trials in 2004, he fell even further when he toppled off the blocks before the 400-meter freestyle, and was disqualified. In a touchy debate, it was ruled that an exception would be made for the champion, and the would-be second place qualifier, Craig Stevens, relinquished his spot on the team for Thorpe. The debate continued, fueled by the question of whether or not Stevens had been paid. Thorpe went on to qualify in both the 100 and 200 freestyle, meaning he would race the Dutchman again.
Upon arrival in Athens, Thorpe was welcomed with heavy media attention surrounding the 200-meter free, dubbed The Race of the Century. Along with van den Hoogenband, Michael Phelps would be competing in the event. In the 400 meter, Thorpe raced against his countryman and rival, Grant Hackett, out-touching him by less than a second. But with out-of-shape and ill teammates, Australia did not land a place on the 4 x 100 free relay podium.
Thorpe displayed the formidable power of the Thorpedo in the 200 free final, surging past the Dutchman in the last length of the pool. Phelps trailed behind, his dreams of reaching Mark Spitz’s seven medals shattered, but his motivation strengthened for Beijing in that moment. This was Thorpe’s fifth Olympic gold, topping the list of most gold medals won by any Australian Olympian. After the race, Van den Hoogenband acknowledged that Thorpe was the best. Thorpe predicted another great showdown between the two athletes in four years’ time.
While the Americans defeated the Australians in the 4 x 200 free relay, Thorpe managed a bronze in the 100-meter freestyle, for a total of nine Olympic medals from the Sydney and Athens Games. He opted to take a break from the sport after 2004, but never returned to it on an international level. While he did plan on going to Beijing before retirement, his new event list (which excluded his signature event, the 400 free) proved challenging, and his times were subpar in comparison to his previous accomplishments. Soon after, he fell ill with what was thought to be bronchitis, but turned out to be glandular fever, and though he moved to the United States in the hopes of a better training regimen, he found his career in the midst of derailing. In November 2006, he announced his retirement, and, despite his fear of life after swimming, presented the change as a positive, in light of the claustrophobic media attention and competitive pressure.
Retirement and attempted return
During the course of his career, Thorpe collected nine Olympic medals, eleven World Championship titles, and has been recognized by Swimming World as Swimmer of the Year four times, as well as Australian swimmer of the Year consecutively for five years. He was also granted a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) by Queen Elizabeth II for “service worthy of particular recognition.”
After retirement, Thorpe maintained a fairly low profile. When rumors that he had been living in Brazil with swimmer Daniel Mendez revived even older rumors regarding Thorpe’s sexuality, he described him and Mendez as “mates,” explained they had trained together, and otherwise ignored the media. More recently, Thorpe was spotted as a guest at the April 2011 Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, shortly after he announced his return to the competitive pool in an attempt to qualify for London 2012. Unfortunately, his hopes were dashed in qualifiers, though he did appear in London as a swimming commentator for BBC.
Shortly after the London Olympics, Thorpe published an autobiography titled, This is Me. The book drew major attention, mainly due to a chapter about depression, which Thorpe continues to live with on a day-to-day basis. In his book, Thorpe also confronted the rumors about homosexuality, listing them as yet another unwarranted pressure that made him feel isolated, not because of his sexuality, but because his honest denials were interpreted as pitiful lies. On Twitter and in interviews, Michael Jordan and other notable athletes applauded Thorpe’s honesty, underlining the seriousness of the ailment. While Thorpe has been careful to assure the public that his depression was not caused by media attention, he has also been candid in admitting that the negativity of Australian media never helped him and that he has struggled with the pain for years, even (and perhaps especially) during the height of his fame in the early 2000s.
Though he was reportedly training for 2013 World Championships in Barcelona, Thorpe did not grace the lanes with his presence. At the beginning of 2014, while he was residing in Switzerland, he underwent several surgeries, and contracted infections that make a full return to swimming unlikely.
Life after swimming
Despite what he previously wrote in his autobiography and stated since he was a teenager, Thorpe came out as gay in July. In a televised interview, he returned to the topic of his severe depression and how much of it was caused by an inability to fully accept his sexuality or have a modicum of privacy to explore it personally. Thorpe explained that when he was first confronted with the question, at age 16, he did not know if Australia’s up-and-coming international athlete could be gay. He also attributed his stint in rehab earlier in the year to a struggle with the medication used to treat his shoulder injury. His coming out was heralded globally, and a number of celebrities, athletes and non-, reached out to offer their support.
In the months following the interview, Thorpe is still attempting to heal his shoulder. He has not discussed a return to competition, though he does hope to get back into the pool recreationally. He received an honorary doctorate from Macquarie University in October, and was recognized as GQ’s Man of Influence in November. He also plans on moving back to Australia in 2015. In the July interview, he mentioned an interest in a career in politics, and, perhaps, having children one day. After growing up under the watchful eye of Australian media, and keeping his own eye on a poolside clock, Thorpe finally has time to himself. He has achieved a multitude of victories in his 32 years; settling into his own skin is one of the most important.
Originally developed by Alexandra Ashworth
Where is he now?
Thorpe has recently taken on a new role as mentor to Australia’s next generation of Olympians and Olympic hopefuls. The first night of the competition will be known as “Thorpe night.”
Thorpe says in an article written by Neil Cross:
“I’ve wanted to be more involved in the sport, I’ve wanted to be supportive of our athletes as well because when you spend time with them, when you get to know them, they’re a great bunch of young people.”
“I think that we really have come to a turning point in this sport where the results we expect in Rio actually are going to be great for this team and a huge turnaround from London.”
Ian Thorpe to mentor Olympics swimming hopefuls ahead of Rio Games