Thorpe's Titanic Talent
From The Swimmer magazine, nationally published in Australia.
Issue 8, May/June 2001. Words by Maggie Ellis.
If anyone still underestimated the capabilities of Ian Thorpe before the 2001 Telstra Australian Championships, their thoughts have now been sunk by the tidal wave that is the ‘Thorpedo’. The youngest world champion ever at age 15, and Australia’s single greatest medal winner at a summer Olympics, Thorpe’s achievements in Hobart not only wrote his name firmly into history, but also showed that his is a talent still being tested.
The first example of Ian Thorpe’s testing came in the 400m freestyle final on night one of the competition. Instead of streaking ahead and breaking his competitors from the start as he so often does, Thorpe stayed with the field for the first four laps before powering away to a convincing win, finishing just 0.17sec outside the world record he set at last year’s Olympics, winning in a time of 3.40.76.
“I went into this race with the intention of going out quite moderately, and putting it together in the last 100m,” he said afterwards as he discussed his new race strategies.
“In most races I think I know the best way to race, but while you’re willing to look outside the square and try another option you can continue to improve.”
It is a sentiment that Thorpe has clearly adopted in attempting the program raced at these championships. He took a giant step up from his favoured 200 and 400 freestyle events to race in the 800 freestyle, a new addition to the program and a race said to test his distance freestyle capacity. It is an area Grant Hackett, the world and Olympic champion in the 1500m, has been able to call his own in recent times. Hackett qualified fastest for the final and remained open-minded as to how the race would pan out.
“I’ll see how Thorpie swims it. He may want to go out hard and hold on or ease through it and bring it home,” he said, noting his friend and rival’s ominous qualities. “He is so strong, has such a high skill level and efficiency when he swims – and on top of that he has endurance. It makes him versatile and it definitely makes him dangerous.”
Thorpe knows the best way to get the best performance from himself is to swim his own race, but admitted he had little experience when it came to the 800m.
“I have no basis to go off. Until you do it in a race situation you can never be sure.”
The race situation lived up to the hype, as Hackett and Thorpe eye-balled each other for 700m – before Thorpe produced an amazing power surge, winning by nearly three body-lengths and cruising 4.4sec under Kieren Perkins’ old world record to win in a time of 7.41.59.
It was an emphatic way for Thorpe to show that he could handle the distance, and it defied the old logic by demonstrating that even an 800m race could be approached from a sprinting perspective.
“I still like to consider myself a sprinter and transform a race to get the best out of my sprinting,” Thorpe said afterwards. “The first 400 was quite comfortable, I lifted at different points and then dropped back which stimulates your muscles and allows you to sprint when you need to.”
Hackett, taking the silver despite also going under the old world record, seemed particularly stunned that Thorpe has so comprehensively won the 800m race.
“Who comes home in 53 seconds?” he asked in relation to Thorpe’s final 100m split, a time that was faster than his final two laps in winning the 400m race. Interestingly, when asked immediately after the swim how his legs had held up, Thorpe replied that it was not an issue because he had not used them for the first half of the race. He also saw room for improvement.
“I can swim better in this race. I did some things well and some things poorly. If I was going to see how fast I could go, I would have gone out faster than I did, varied my speed a bit more throughout and brought my legs in a bit earlier,” he said.
This obviously suggests Thorpe believes he has a long way to go until the perfect swim in the 800 and the world record he set is not an indication of his true potential in the event.
Perkins praised Thorpe’s performance. “I think he showed more maturity in that race than in any other. If he hasn’t trained specifically for the 800 and he swims like he did then anything can happen.”
Twenty-four hours after this first venture into relatively uncharted territory, Thorpe returned to familiar ground in the 200m freestyle final and placed his name back on top of the world record list by slicing 0.66sec off the world mark held by Olympic champion Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband.
That Thorpe reclaimed the world record was not an entirely unexpected happening, given his incredible talent and obvious success in the event, but there was some genuine surprise at the amazing consistency shown by the 18-year-old in setting new world records and personal bests, especially with this victory coming off the back of an 800m swim.
“I think surprise is the right word,” Thorpe agreed. “I didn’t expect to swim this fast. But by training hard and being confident in what you do in training, knowing you’ve done the background and the right preparation, it should not be difficult.”
He also pointed out he does not take these moments of success for granted.
And he is certain there are still mountains for him to climb, both within swimming and away from it.
The second new experience for Thorpe aside from swimming and winning the 800 was his victory on night six in the 100m, and again he set a personal best by 0.66sec, finishing in 49.05.
“It is something I didn’t expect because I’ve never swum well in the 100m,” Thorpe said of his fourth gold for the meet.
From an historical viewpoint, the win made him the first swimmer since John Konrads in 1959 to win the 100, 200, 400 and 800m titles at a single championship. Konrads also took the 1500m title the year he dominated the national meet, however that is an event Thorpe is not ready to contest at this point.
“If you add 100, 200, 400 and 800 it actually equals 1500, so I’ve done my 1500,” he stated with a smile. “But who knows what I may attempt in the future?”
Thorpe has equalled Konrads on another page of the history books, becoming only the third man ever to hold the world records over 200, 400 and 800m. Konrads held the records for the three events from 1958 to 1960 when, like Thorpe today, he was just a teenager.
The only other swimmer versatile enough to hold the spread of records across the freestyle events that Thorpe and Konrads have was Tim Shaw of the United States. Shaw won four gold medals at the 1975 World Championships in the 200, 400 and 1500m, and won the silver medal in the 400m at the Montreal Olympics.
And on the Australian record lists Thorpe is now the fourth most prolific world record holder ever behind only Dawn Fraser (14), Konrads (12), Shane Gould (11) and Stephen Holland (11).
While these amazing achievements ensure that Thorpe will always be considered one of the best swimmers the world has seen, it is clear he is still discovering his true potential, and his willingness to try new tactics and programs, to “think outside the square” as he put it, will only further his development as a swimmer.
“If you don’t try things you’re never going to know,” he says. “It is a challenge, just like training, and just like what anyone does in life. I like to see what I can put my body through and how much pain I can take.”
Head coach Don Talbot surmised the week’s performances in similar fashion. “I’ve used all the great statements about him that I can make and I still think he’s exploring what he can do and what his limits are, and he has not reached them yet.”
Considering the accomplishments already on the board, that makes Thorpe an ominous opponent.
“I think he has got the wood on everybody,” agrees Perkins. “I don’t think there’s anyone in his events who thinks they can beat him.”
As for Thorpe himself, the next major focus is the 9th FINA World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, this July. And despite adding events to his program this Australian Championships has been one of his most successful meets.
“I’m probably equally as happy as I was at the Olympics. It’s hard to compare the two and you cannot do it based on emotions, but on performance I swam PBs in all my events so it has been good,” he said.
“This is the first time I’ve finished a meet and been 100 per cent healthy. I’ve just been confident in all of my races here, and I have enough confidence going into the World Championships at this stage to do all events.”
As for what success he will have in Japan and his future beyond that, on one can predict what Thorpe is capable of.
“I’m very thankful for how I’ve done. While I continue to enjoy it, I’ll continue doing it, and hopefully I will continue to do it well,” Thorpe said.
And while he continues to do it well, this remarkable athlete will go on to stretch the superlatives of all those who see him create history.