Ian Thorpe at the FINA Swimming World Cup in Tokyo in November 2011. Photo: Toru Hanai/Reuters
In the swimming pool, Ian Thorpe was once invincible. With one of the most powerful kicks in the water motoring his ambitions, Thorpe won his first world championship at the age of 15. At 17, he won three gold and two silver medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In the next edition, in Athens in 2004, he added two more golds. This included his triumph in the “Race of the Century” in 200m freestyle, where he fought off Pieter van den Hoogenband and Michael Phelps.
Who knew that the man in that iron 6ft, 5 inches frame, who set 13 world records, was hiding a deeply vulnerable side? When the public glare got too bright, Thorpe took a break from the sport in 2006—and was never quite able to come back. He admitted to severe depression during the height of his glory days and came out as gay in 2014.
He has since learnt to subdue, if not quite shut out, the demons in the head.
The swimmer, who was in Mumbai recently, said he is “looking forward” to the 2016 Rio Olympics starting August, which he will watch from the Star Sports studios in the city, and give his expert opinion on.
But Thorpe remains special to the sport, for he has shown that elite athletes are still more human than superhuman.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
It’s been about 12 years since the Athens Games, but even today wherever you go in the world, you are adored.
This is the magic of the Olympics. If you become an Olympic champion, or especially if you become a multiple Olympic champion, that distinction means you are followed all around the world. If I do travel, I have these tremendous opportunities. It’s nice to be in a place that I’ve wanted to come to and know that people respect the accomplishment as well.
Despite all the Olympic gold medals, the world championships and world records, your Twitter bio only reads “Olympian”.
I don’t need people to know everything that I do in my life. But if you’re an Olympian, you are always an Olympian. There’s a value that comes from being an Olympian. I think being an Olympian is expecting more and getting more out of the world and out of yourself. There are certain ideals that come with this. It’s simple and complicated at the same time.
What do you make of the nickname Thorpedo?
I like that Americans like it. That works. For me, it’s okay. But I don’t go around calling myself this.
What is it like to watch the Games from the outside? Do you still feel like being a part of them?
I would love to be. I feel like I am a part of the Olympics. In what I’m doing with broadcasting, and things like that, I do feel like I’m a part of it. When I watch swimmers that I know compete, I move and I become anxious and nervous for them. Technically, I’m watching, but I can feel the strokes they’re doing. I haven’t been out of it long enough to not feel it, perhaps one day I will.
You did try to make a comeback…
I have had two shoulder reconstruction surgeries. I had an infection and broken shoulder for nine months. I can’t swim any more. I don’t have any pain, but there are some things I can’t do.
Do you regret leaving the sport so early?
No. I realized at that time that that’s what I needed to do. For me, the part of swimming that I’ve enjoyed the most is training, and being able to refine my skill, being able to see how I could create performance in training. When I wasn’t given the opportunity or the privacy to be able to do that in training, I started to lose my desire to continue. Once I didn’t have that, I didn’t have the love for the sport the way I once did.
How crazy was the attention? And was your depression related to it in any way?
They are two separate things. I don’t think one led to the other. When I started in the sport, there wasn’t someone who had that kind of profile. It was a new thing. The level that it reached was the height of fame that most people will never understand or experience. For me, it wasn’t something that I was necessarily prepared for.
I dealt with it; I felt obliged to deal with it. When I decided that I wanted to swim again, I made a conscious decision that I was opening that world back up. I had come to terms with it. I had accepted that my life could potentially be out in public and for people to be able to say things about me. I had been able to make that decision for myself. In putting myself back out there, I accepted that there will be parts of my life that will be scrutinized and it may become someone’s fascination. I may disagree with some of the reasons for it, but I accept that it could be part of my life.
You said it will be a new beginning for you. How much has life changed since you came out during a TV interview?
It’s only changed for the better. But it hasn’t changed that much, to be honest. I realized it wasn’t that big a deal. It is quite similar to what it was a couple of years ago. I am fortunate to have a great life. I struggled coming out, but I don’t struggle being out.
Are athletes still reluctant to talk about their sexuality?
I have seen a lot of statistics around it, be it Australian or international. And of 8,000 athletes, we have one openly gay athlete. And we know from around the world that statistically there should be a lot higher. There is still a stigma attached, and it will require more people being openly gay to eradicate it.
What do you make of Michael Phelps’ comeback? And how difficult is it to make a comeback at that level?
It is extremely difficult. But other people have done it in swimming. Michael Phelps is a great champion and I want to see him do well. I enjoy being able to talk about what he can do in swimming. And he has a baby as well now. I think this will be his last Olympics, I didn’t think in London that it would be his last. I thought there would be one more, and I’m glad there is. I hope he wins at least a couple of gold medals, as long as they are not against Australia.