Is Ian Thorpe Relevant Today?

Chuck Warner, author and coach, is an old friend. Thoughtful and passionate about the sport, he has studied the details behind what it takes to achieve swimming excellence.

Lessons from Legends

Ian Thorpe released a new book on his life in October. Does anyone care?

In 2012, at 29 years old, Thorpe failed to make the Australian Olympic Team. A thorough biography of his life and career was completed in 2004 by Greg Hunter, so what’s left to learn?

Is the fact that only one-hundredth of a second at the height of the ‘plastic suit era’ all that separates the Thorpedo from retaining the oldest long course world record in the books enticing enough to take another look at him? You might consider that he did lower the world record five times in the 400-meter freestyle (long course) and then years later his 3:40.08 400-meter freestyle from 2002 the second fastest swim of all time.

His new book has not climbed the New York Times Best Seller list, but unless you just won eight gold medals at the Olympics it’s unlikely a swimming book will. Swimming coaches, swimmers and parents often tend to see the latest trend and leap to it, and Ian Thorpe is not a latest trend.

USA Olympic Coach Eddie Reese tells a story about trends when he was growing up swimming on the east coast of Florida. Everyone was hearing about a new way to swim backstroke with a bent arm. A fast local swimmer bent his arm on the recovery, so all over the Daytona Beach area coaches taught their swimmers to bend their arms over their heads on their recovery, hoping to gain the advantage of this new, allegedly improved style. Then, they learned the bent arm was really effective when it was underwater not on the recovery. Whoops!

History─even recent history─gives us lessons to learn from so we can make better choices today. Parents, coaches and swimmers all have much to learn from history and most certainly from the career of Ian Thorpe, although possibly not over 300 pages.

Like Michael Phelps, Ian had an older sister that was a great swimmer. Christina Thorpe was a world class distance swimmer, a great training partner for Ian growing up and helped mold the family life around being consistent attending practice and concentrating on swimming.

Parents might want to know that Ian had terrific parents and why. He inherited great genes, including the fact that his father was a super-star cricket player and both parents had huge feet. The first -factor suggests that Ian was, and is, a gifted natural athlete and the second helped him become one of the great kickers in the world.

Ian’s parents didn’t push his kids to swim. But his father adopted a policy that if the Thorpe kids were going to be on the swim team, they would complete that year with good sportsmanship and regular practice attendance. At the conclusion of each year there was a break when each child could decide for themselves if they did or didn’t want to continue to swim for the next year.

Coaches can gain knowledge from Ian’s career in several unique areas. One is that when Ian began to enter into ‘senior training’ at age 12, his coach saw the value of his kick and adjusted the timing of the arms to add more of a catch-up of one arm to the next to it to take advantage of his legs.  With one arm always out front, it lengthened his 6’5” vessel and gave him constant forward momentum from his magnificent kick. A second is that he worked very hard on kicking and helped the world renew it’s respect for the effect of being a good kicker.

A third area in his development was the word-pictures his age-group coaches used to teach freestyle. He was instructed to lift his elbow on it’s recovery like a crane was lifting it. His hand should hang underneath the elbow with the crane carrying it forward of his head. At that point he was taught to extend out front and slide into the water to a long extension and catch.

A swimmer today might note that Ian raced without a specific plan except to completely exhaust himself at the finish. He applied his effort with a great deal of intuition. Even though he became the youngest male world champion in history at just 15-years old, he had many great races in and out of Australia with the likes of Grant Hackett. He won the vast majority of big ones with his intuitive application of effort serving him very, very well.

Ian Thorpe became a multi-millionaire through swimming but perhaps what he can teach us best is how we can care for our community. He has said, “Sometimes we question things that we have done in our lives but how many times do we question what we haven’t done in someone else’s.

About ten years ago, he founded the “Fountain For Youth” in his homeland.  The foundation targets education, health and cultural development programs for native Australian children that live in remote aboriginal communities. Ian has used his fame to help boost awareness for the needs of these children and create partnerships in Australia to produce positive and sometimes dramatic changes. Fountain For Youth now works in 20 remote indigenous communities.

Oh yes, Ian Thorpe is still relevant today. In the long run he may be remembered for what he’s done for others, more than for himself, or as a great swimmer.

Chuck Warner has been a swimming coach for more than forty years. His teams have won seven national Y team championships, been runners-up for the NCAA Division II championship three times, been a USA National Team swim coach three times and Big East Conference coach of the year four times. Chuck has authored two books: “Four Champions, One Gold Medal” about the training and race for the 1500 meter gold medal in the 1976 Olympics. “…And Then They Won Gold: Stepping Stones To Swimming Excellence – Volume I” is out now. It is eight short stories of some of the greatest male swimmers in history. The second volume devoted to women’s swimmers is due out next year. He is the founder, President and CEO of Arete Aquatic Services and owner of the ARETE Swim Camp.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON ORDERING“…And Then They Won Gold” go and access “Books/Media.”

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10 years ago

Growing up as a swimmer in australia and going to the Sydney Olympics in 2000, ian thorpe was my favourite swimmer and I wanted to compete in the 200/400 double too. However now, as a competitor in triathlon and open water at national level, the bodysuit saga that I remember reading in his book still eats away at me. His 3:40:08 was set in the bodysuit. I know it was textile but a full body suit is surely going to help buoyancy, even the thinnest material. It does in triathlon wetsuits.
Yes I know he won world champs without suits but the fact is, I don’t think without the suit he would have swam 3:40. I still see him… Read more »

Reply to  OWS
10 years ago

OWS, I wouldn’t sweat it. I used to think that way too; back then i always wondered why everyone wasn’t wearing those suits if Thorpe was setting world records in them. But Thorpe was setting world records before he wore it, even in a speedo, and his trajectory placed him on course to set those records with or without that bodysuit. I found out that almost nobody else was wearing them because they felt that any potential gains in streamlining and reduced resistance were offset by decreased flexibility and a feeling of being overly constricted, especially in the shoulders. Any buoyancy was very minimal compared with a rubber triathlon wetsuit, or the more recent tech suits, and the suits lacked… Read more »

10 years ago

Any swimmer in college currently or who has already graduated will know Thorpe’s name. He is still relevant in countless circles. The youth of any generation not looking up to the same big names as their parents did is only a fact of life.. The giants will always be known by those who lived in their respective era.

s gomez
11 years ago

i used to coach for a ymca a town away from where i live before the economy tanked. it was fun, i could afford to live off of just coaching for about 1 year. I left that job on good terms to try to find a full time career oriented job and if it allowed me to continue coaching on the side, so be it. I found a job that did. anyway, i still go to events with my old team, they are a big open water team and my family is really involved in the OW community. i was talking to a group of early high school swimmers and they all knew about Thorpes come back, and how he… Read more »

11 years ago

Although Thorpe has done mighty work with his Fountain for Youth, his influence in the community in Australia is far greater. He has served many many charities by just introducing them to the corporate types.
There is a charity run out of Sydney University that links mentors with Aboriginal kids to help with school work etc. Its a simple premise that was started on a very small scale by an enthusiatic uni student. It is now huge. The guy who started the charity (his name escapes me, embarassingly) is now the youngest CEO in Australia.
When he was interviewed, it was Ian Thorpe that introduced him to and leaned on corporate guys to get the money in.
… Read more »

Reply to  swimcoachgus
11 years ago

Great Insight.Thanks for sharing this!!

Philip Johnson
11 years ago

Thorpe is a legend. The times he swam were years ahead during his time and are still the standard.

Reply to  Philip Johnson
11 years ago

His 400 m WR is still unbroken, more than 10 years after he last broke it.

Reply to  aswimfan
11 years ago

Actually AS, on July 26, 2009 at the World Championships in Rome, Paul Biederman swam .01 faster than Ian’s record with a “SUIT”: 3:40.07.

Seems like a shame doesn’t it?

Reply to  Philip Johnson
11 years ago

Rosolino did NOT deserve sotmehing like that. He and nearly the entire ITalian Olympic team in all sports were on steroids. It was proven when they were caught a couple months after the Games but not investigated further. The Italians had a surprisingly great Olympics in many sports, not just swimming. Anyway Rosolino is not some historic swimmer. He won silver in this event since Hackett swam badly, Klim chose not to swim it, and Van Den Hoogeband chose not to swim it.

11 years ago

Ian Thorpe is certainly relevant, in some circles. However, those circles aren’t especially big. People outside the world of swimming generally don’t care too much if a person swims fast, except maybe for one week every four years when fast swimmers are television entertainment.

Reply to  Bill Volckening
11 years ago

You’re right on the money Bill!

At the height of his career Ian’s agent did a great job of developing a following for him in Japan. This helped generate huge endorsement opportunities, in addition to his existing ones in Australia.

But how many 15 year olds know his name and the standard mentioned?

11 years ago

He still is one of the best freestyle swimmers of all time ! His stroke was a model of is own !!!
I love watching how he swam so smoothly and so efficiently …

Reply to  Jean-michel Blue
11 years ago

maybe you’d have to think before wnriitg Rosolino is one of the most successful swimmer of all time with his 60 INTERNATIONAL MEDALS. so show more respect for him and all the italian team i only think that the gap between rosolino and the rest (thorpe excluded) was so deep that he deserved to set the WR, not only the ER! but probably the fact that you mention Van Den Hoogeband and Klim as really competitive in 400, shows that probably you don’t know anything about swimming

Reply to  Gabrieli
11 years ago

This article has nothing to do with him; what a pointless comment. You only deserve to set a WR when you actually set a WR, which he never did.

11 years ago

Of Course Ian is still relevant! He was a pioneer and great ambassador to our sport! could you imagine swimming without the Thorpedo?!

About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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