You couldn’t see it … nobody could see it. Not one person among the 17,000 people whose deafening roars threatened to raise the roof of the Olympic venue. Not one among the millions across the country and
around the world, transfixed on their TV. Nor any of the seven men nervously standing alongside him, who knew exactly what he was capable of.
All we all saw on that opening night of the Sydney Olympics was that imposing, daunting, dominant figure. A methodical machine. Some said and still declare … the greatest swimmer ever.
But while a nation anticipated – no, expected – its first gold medal, inside that big black swimsuit was a 17-year-old boy, treading water in a pool of doubt.
“I knew I was expected to win … no, it was assumed that I’d win. I knew that,” Ian Thorpe said this week, reflecting on that opening night of competition, September 16, 2000.
“But I was an untested athlete at an Olympic Games. I knew there had been great swimmers who had come before me who had been really successful at world championships, who had not actually become Olympic champions.
“My heat swim, even though I qualified fastest, it wasn’t as comfortable as what I thought it would be. And the warm-up didn’t feel great before the final. You know, I had doubts going into the 400m final.”
Grant Hackett was one of the seven, out in lane eight. He thought Thorpe had it all under control … he always did.
“He was human, but he never seemed to let it get to him,” Hackett said. “I don’t know how, upon reflection, you couldn’t see the expectation and pressure, and having to deal with that, but I didn’t see it from him at that moment.
“But this was a different stage, one we didn’t know what to expect, or how we would handle it until we were in there. I thought I did until I walked out for the 400m freestyle heats. The energy from that crowd that was thrown at you. This was a very, very different type of pressure, and just about everyone in that venue expected Ian to win.”
Coach Doug Frost didn’t see any cracks that night.
“I was probably as nervous as him but I always tried to be Mr Cool,” Frost said. “We couldn’t have done any more, and that was the attitude we always had. It was a lot of pressure on a 17-year-old but we knew that we were there on times, we were going to be very competitive, but that pressure of course of being a home Olympics. He seemed to handle it well in the heats, but you just never know.”
It’s hard, verging on impossible, to imagine Thorpe having doubts about anything to do with water. The kid who first raced over 50m at Revesby Pool with his head out of the water, water polo-style, never considered being an Olympian.
“I enjoyed swimming. I just loved the way that I felt in the water. When Sydney won the Olympics, I was 10. Yes, I’d been winning things at a junior level, but I’m too young for the Sydney Olympics. All of the people I looked up to in the sport, their greatest achievements came in their 20s. A young man in his teens couldn’t be at the Olympics, or potentially winning at an Olympic Games.
“I think for me the reality hit when I overheard my father, when I was 14 or 15, speaking on the phone to one of his friends, saying how talented I was. I’d never heard my father speak like that. He doesn’t. He’s understated. It’s just not the way that I’m used to hearing my father speak.
“When I became world champion in Perth in 1998, that changed everything. There’s an Olympics around the corner, and I’m pretty much going in as someone who’s expected to win.
“But even after winning the world championship, I had doubts. I didn’t know if it was like a one-hit wonder. Am I just another young athlete who’s successful at age group level and someone who isn’t able to match it with the best from around the world? I guess it’s part of me being someone who’s quite reserved in the way I feel about things. Yes, there were some doubts along the way.
“The Commonwealth Games followed the world championships and I improved even more and, with that, I realised Sydney was for me.”
Thorpe would swim two seconds faster than his world championship time at the Commonwealth Games in Malaysia then, the following year, take almost two seconds off Kieren Perkins’ 400m world record at the Pan Pac Championships in the Sydney Olympic pool.
And from there everything went as planned heading into the Games … well, not exactly.
A day before his 17th birthday, 11 months out from the Games, Thorpe twisted his ankle while running. He didn’t realise it was broken – snapped in two – and continued to train for two days before his mother insisted on X-rays.
“I remember my mum walking down with the X-rays in her hand and I could see she’d been crying. I think she saw my Olympic dream disappearing.
“I knew I had to adapt. I couldn’t have my ankle pinned together because I broke the bone in half. I opted to have a fiberglass cast on for a week or two, which I swam with, and then a compression splint which would be on for three months.
“I ended up having to retrain myself, doing a lot more in the gym, whilst trying to balance out the deficiency from one side to the other with the legs, and doing individual leg work to get my left leg back to where it was.”
With the ankle healing, Thorpe headed to Europe in early 2000 for the World Cup circuit and results showed his Olympic dream was back on track, before what would be one of the most pivotal and crucial moments in his preparation for Sydney.
In what was seen as an attempt to destabilise Thorpe, German head coach Manfred Thiesmann said: “A lot of people suspect him [Thorpe] of doping. There’s a lot of skepticism about him, but we can’t prove it.”
“I think it was to do with human growth hormones that make your hands or feet or both larger,” Thorpe recalled. “(National coach) Don Talbot gave me the opportunity to withdraw from a race (in Berlin) because of the hype. I said no.
“I was about to test a new swimsuit from adidas, so I said I’m swimming and I’m wearing this suit, it’s what I’ll be wearing at the Olympics.
“It was probably one of the best races in my life. I produced a performance that would look like I probably was on drugs. I broke the (200m) world record by a couple of seconds. I still remember one of my opponents said to me he wished he hadn’t swum that race, because he would have loved to have seen me swim it.
“It is one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever been given. And when I went to receive the gold medal all of the athletes came down to pool deck in a show of support.
“Why I swam that night was because whatever could happen leading up to Sydney I had to be prepared for it. My ankle, accused of taking drugs … I had to be able to deal with any circumstance, any situation and be able to get on with the job that needs to be done.
“It meant I believed in myself and my ability to be able to manage what was going on around me.”
Good friend and Sydney Olympics’ roommate Michael Klim was on that trip.
“I could see it did get to him,” Klim recalled. “But he was able to turn that into energy. A lot would turn it into anxiety and stress but he turned it into anger and then consequently into controlled anger and controlled aggression. That was one of the most incredible swims that night.”
Swimming Australia’s media man Ian Hanson had worked with Thorpe from his junior days, and he knew the incident “rattled him”.
“He was so anti-drugs. It did rattle him. He’s only human and, no matter how good we knew he was, that could have rocked him to the core,” Hanson said. “Doug and Don really helped him a lot in that space as well, but nobody gives you a book on how you’re supposed to manage that stuff.
“It did hurt him, yet the power of the mind of Ian Thorpe to overcome that stuff and everything that transpired post that, was remarkable. You have a very special young man who was born to do it, and we may never ever see another Ian Thorpe.”
The perception was that pressure never got to Thorpe. He repeatedly said he looked at public expectation as support not pressure, and vowed he avoided reading newspapers.
But he couldn’t avoid everything.
“If I was at the shopping centre with my family someone would say to me things like, ‘I’m so lucky to have won tickets to see you on the first night at the swimming, and we can’t wait to see you win your first Olympic gold medal’.” Thorpe explained. “You can try and control it as much as you want, but there’s always going to be some way for those things to be able to creep in.
“You would try to remove yourself from everything but there’s just some impracticality to it that you can’t get around. It was in your face where ever you went or looked, and I just had to accept it and deal with it.”
Alan Thompson was national team manager and, along with Hanson, played the role of protecting Thorpe at times.
“It didn’t matter whether it was from the major networks or major papers, to the small local stuff, everyone wanted a piece of Ian,” Thompson said. “He took it all in his stride. He was just comfortable all the way through. Doug had a lot to do with a that, keeping him well-grounded as did his parents Ken and Margaret.
“But Olympics are different. Nobody doubted his talent, but I think the strike rate for number one ranked swimmers going into the Olympics was around 50 per cent. And you can break a world record 365 days a year, you can only win an Olympic gold medal on one day, every four years.
“Heading into Sydney, Ian was like Cathy Freeman. He had the weight of Australia on his shoulders in that first event 400m. Everyone wanted – no expected – him to win our first gold medal.”
Cathy was still a week away. These were our Olympic Games. Michellie Jones won a silver in the triathlon that morning, but we craved gold, and in the short time he had been part of our lives, Thorpey had never disappointed.
“The roar as we walked out was loud, but then they announced me to the crowd … I’ve had massive cheers around the world where I’ve competed. I hadn’t heard anything like this ever before,” Thorpe recalled.
“In lane four, reigning world champion, and world record holder in this event, representing Australia …”
“And then, again, in French, and you get a bit of an ego boost.
“The way the crowd cheered I responded in the way a kid does when they get into trouble, where you don’t know what you’re supposed to do, you kind of laugh, I kind of smirked, and quite literally, that was the moment I removed any doubts out of my head. I was ready.
“By the time I stood on the blocks, I’ve made the decision, I will lead this race from the start to the finish.”
Three minutes and 40.59 seconds later, Thorpe had not only broken his own world record and become an Olympic gold medal winner, he had the honour of being Australia’s first athlete to win gold at its home Games.
“I did look up and say thank you. It wasn’t just a moment of “thank you God”. There’s a sense of relief that you have from these kinds of things, but for me it was like a thank you to everyone else because behind that performance wasn’t just myself. My coach, the people I trained with, my family, and the sacrifices I’d made for years.
“But it was also something for me, something I wanted, that I had dreamt about, had actually happened the way I wanted. Because I had the relay I had to quickly move on. I couldn’t linger on the win.
“And when I reflect on my career I wish I spent more time celebrating my success. I don’t mean going out and partying, I mean, celebrating that I just accomplished something that was significant, but I was always looking to what was next … the next race, the next competition or what was coming up.
“I advise young people to actually embrace what you achieve and your successes because I actually think you can get a lot out of that, to re-inspire yourself.
“You’re amongst a select group of people in the world who are the very best at what you do, no matter what field you are in. You should be able to acknowledge that.”