Amongst all of the other exciting stories that have been buzzing about the swimming world the past few weeks, none has been better than the return of the man who has been on the short list of the top swimmers in the world, ever. Not only are the swimming blogs going nuts over the news, but the world’s elite swimmers are also supremely excited. While most current swimmers, save a few Australian teammates, have been careful not to speak publicly on the comeback (though the questions are surely coming), former swimmers have not held back with their feelings. They’ve been mostly positive, though a few have had mixed reviews of the return. Let’s take a look at what different swimmers have been saying.
Pieter van den Hoogenband: The Dutch swimmer was among Thorpe’s biggest rivals during his prime. At the 2000 Sydney Games, he knocked off Thorpe for the 200 free gold medal, and Thorpe returned the favor four years later in Athens. Van den Hoogenband has a ton of respect for his former rival, telling the Australian Associated Press that “I think he can win the 100m freestyle. I’m one of the few swimmers that was always next to him and when you’re always next to him … you know he’s special. When you’re racing Thorpey, his technique, he’s a special, special athlete.”
Hoogenband qualified his remarks by saying that “Even if he doesn’t win the 100m freestyle but wins a medal with the Aussie 4×100 or 4×200 relay teams, that would be fantastic too,” and emphasizing that he thinks Thorpe’s greatest contribution can be lifting the level of all of his Australian teammates and relay mates. Like many in the media, he also foresees a Thorpe-Phelps showdown in the 100 free as one of the highlights of the London games.
Dawn Fraser: Fraser, who is often mentioned alongside Thorpe as the greatest Australian athletes of all time, also was supportive of Thorpe’s return, though she was less specific in her predictions. She said that “I have the utmost respect for him coming back because it’s not easy and he’ll have that big question mark behind him. Can he or can’t he? I reckon he can.”
Like van den Hoogenband, she also was excited about how this will push his young teammates, naming specifically Alicia Coutts, Yolane Kukla, and Thomas Fraser-Holmes. “It will make the kids train harder because they want to get up there with the best of them. There are kids coming through with a lot of talent and they’ve got Thorpe to lead them. They’ve got someone to chase. Once you get up the top and you’ve got no one to chase, it’s pretty hard to stay there.”
Grant Hackett: Hackett and Thorpe squared off in a number of epic duals, including the 400 freestyle at the 2004 Olympics where the two battled to a gold (Thorpe) and silver (Hackett) just tenths apart in the 400m freestyle. Unlike many of the others, Hackett has the unique perspective amongst the big names who have spoken publicly in that he not only competed against Thorpe, but also thrived off of him and earned many an 800 free relay gold with his help.
Hackett, when pressed, said that ”I think [Thorpe] can definitely achieve a lot. Winning individually is a huge, huge stretch, but in words that he uses, never say never. He looks pretty fit, solid. That’s one thing I noticed, he’s starting to get that shape he had when he was swimming at his best, and the competition hasn’t really moved anywhere past his times even when he wasn’t in the suit. There is more competition there for sure, but the whole field hasn’t moved on against his times … apart from Phelps.” Hackett said that he had no intent to join Thorpe on the Australian relays in London, though he posited that he probably could if he tried.
Hackett did say that he thinks that Thorpe should stay at home instead of jet-setting around the world, with training based in Abu Dhabi. “I’m shaking my head trying to work out why you wouldn’t want the creature comforts of home surrounded by your family and friends,” Hackett said according to Fox Sports.
Geoff Huegill: Huegill, known around the Aussie swimming circuit as “Skip,” echoed Hackett’s comments about staying at home and training. In a guest column he penned for the Sydney Morning Herald, “I agree with another former team-mate in Grant Hackett, who expressed surprise that Ian was considering moving his training base to the Middle East. Ian needs to be here using our best coaches and sports science resources. Abu Dhabi isn’t the place to base yourself for a comeback to the pool. We have the best of the best here, so why not utilise those resources and take away the hassles of being overseas and away from a great support crew.”
He then continues on to extend an invitation to the Thorpedo to train with his group in New South Wales that includes Eamon Sullivan, who is the current Australian king in the 100m freestyle. Huegill has been the most successful, thus far, amongst the latest string of comebacks. The butterflier dropped over 90 pounds, culminating with a 100 fly Commonwealth gold last year, 12 years after winning his first in 1998.
Bob Bowman: Despite Ryan Lochte being the betting-man’s favorite for the 200 free in Shanghai, most of the buzz has been about Thorpe re-motivating Michael Phelps in either the 100 or the 200. Phelps has not made public comment yet, but his coach Bob Bowman told the Sydney Morning Herald that “‘Having him return to competition can only increase interest and enthusiasm for our sport,” Bowman said. ”He understands the demands, and I’m sure he would only return if he is confident that he can compete at the top level.”
Mark Spitz: More opinions from this side of the Pacific came from Mark Spitz. Spitz told the SMH that he thinks “it’s fantastic. I’m excited. I’m a big fan of Ian’s, I always have been,” US Olympic legend Mark Spitz said. ”I don’t think that he’s going to make Michael Phelps nervous, but Michael Phelps loves the idea of competition, and I think that it’s going to be great for Michael, great for Ian, great for swimming, and great for you and great for me, because we’ll all be watching.” It’s great to see a swimmer like Spitz, who was so great so many years ago, maintain the enthusiasm for the sport.
Like Thorpe, Spitz retired when many thought he still had a lot of medals to win: he was only 22, and was fresh off of his 7 gold medal performance in Munich. Spitz also tried to make a comeback to qualify for the 1992 Olympics, when he was 42 years old, but fell short of qualifying for the American team.
Murray Rose: The biggest critic of Thorpe’s comeback has been 1956 triple-gold medalist Murray Rose. Rose told the Daily Telegraph that “if you look backwards then you are not developing your future talent as best as you can. And you are creating a dependence on the past that, at best, will last one or two major meets and then he is up and gone.”
He feels that Thorpe’s return will serve as an excuse for Swimming Australia to not focus its resources on developing the next generation of Olympic legends.
The Public has been overwhelmingly skeptical about his comeback, and seem to, in general, have a lot less confidence about his chances for success than the pro’s do. Many, myself included, have taken offense to the Phelps-Thorpe conversations that have largely ignored the presence of greats like Ryan Lochte and Cesar Cielo. The people are, however, quite excited about the thoguhts of Thorpe in the pool, and at the mainstream exposure that it will bring our sport. The public has also largely followed the questions of Hackett and Huegill about the motives behind his choice of training in Abu Dhabi. Will his endorsement commitments distract him from his training?
What do you think?