Ian Thorpe, wasted talent, old bastards proved right

There’s nothing worse than an old fat bastard giving you the “I told you so” treatment, but here I go…..

When you live on an island, it’s a good idea to learn how to swim. That’s why all kids in an Australian school are encouraged to take swimming lessons from a very young age. In fact, most kids are old hands at swimming by the time school lessons come around. There are swimming classes at local pools for toddlers and plenty of parents chuck their kids in at the deep end while they’re still in nappies.

Ian Thorpe is/was one of our country’s greatest ever swimmers. His ascension to the top of the swimming heap began when he was just a schoolboy, selected for the Australian swimming team at just 14 years of age. That year, he won 10 gold medals in the Australian underage championships, but more remarkably, set six Australian records in the process.

His international debut in the Pan Pacific Championships (age 15) was marred by an appendix operation but just a year later he took his first two World Championship gold medals. Later that year he won four gold medals at the Commonwealth Games.

His first Olympics were in Sydney, in 2000. He took three gold, including the famous 4×100 relay win where the Australians smashed the Americans like guitars (a response to some US trash talk in the lead up to the event, see below). He also won two silver medals at the Sydney Olympics.

At the 2001 World Championships, he won six more gold. Another six at the 2002 Commonwealth Games and another five gold at the 2002 Pan Pacs.

Thorpe shone again in 2004 at Athens, taking home another four medals, half of them gold.

We shouldn’t forget the world records, either. 13 of them. Thorpe held world records in the 200, 400 and 800 meter freestyle events. They’ve all been broken since, but it was a wonderful achievement.

And all of that had happened before he turned 23 years old.

Every athlete (except maybe some pro basketballers) will tell you that the pinnacle of athletic achievement is the Olympic Games. In 2006, at age 24 and with the Beijing Olympics just two years away, Thorpe decided he’d had enough. He was feeling burned out and just didn’t have the desire to swim anymore. At just 24.

Thorpe has told a packed news conference in Sydney that he is moving on to a “next phase” in his life.

The Sydney and Athens gold medallist has said he decided on Sunday to leave the sport that had “catapulted” him into the limelight 10 years ago.

“I know there is a lot of people out there that want me to keep swimming. I only hoped that I wanted to swim half as much as other people want me to,” he has said.

“It would be dishonest to myself and to others (to continue) as I would be fulfilling other people’s dreams.”

He has decided to pursue other interests after realising competitive swimming was no longer his top priority in life.

“It’s like swimming lap after lap staring at a black line – then all of a sudden you look up” at the world around you, he has said.

“I started looking at myself, not just physically, but also as a person. I haven’t balanced out my life as well as what I should have.”

I remember thinking at the time, like quite a few other people, that this was a flawed decision. I believed 200% that he’d regret not using the full compliment of his talent while he had age and ability on his side.

His movements outside of swimming included some daft forays into television in programs that went absolutely nowhere. Things about travel, and fashion, IIRC. I’m sure there were other business ventures as well, but bottom line, Ian Thorpe is an average person in every respect aside from his ability to propel himself through the water at amazing speed.

The theory that he’d miss swimming was confirmed 18 months or so ago, when the Thorpedo announced that he was making a comeback, with a view to competing in the London Olympics this year, 2012. Everyone wished him well and I think we all wanted to see Thorpe back to his best. I know I did.

It’s a long way to the Olympic podium, however, even if you know the route.

Last night, at the Australian selection trials for the London Olympics, Ian Thorpe saw his Olympic dream go up in smoke. His best chance at being selected for the games was in the 200m freestyle. People were optimistic after his heat, too. He swam well and looked like he had more in the tank, slowing down in the final 50m in what people thought was a bid to preserve some energy for the semi-final later in the evening.

In that semi-final, Thorpe showed that the slow-down earlier in the day might have actually been fatigue rather than race craft. Thorpe came out well but started losing pace from the 100m mark, eventually finishing sixth and not even making it to the final. He ranked 12th out of the 16 swimmers who contested the semi-finals.

His own words told the story:

(It’s) the fairytale that just turned into a nightmare.

Ian Thorpe was the best swimmer in the world at his peak. I’m sure that Michael Phelps would have forced him into the background had Thorpe swum in Athens anyway, but if Thorpe’s legacy was injured by his decision to retire back in 2006, that injury revealed its full depth last night.

Thorpe abandoned a field in which he was the world’s best and at an age where he could have continued to inspire and achieve. I don’t know if he wanted “find himself” or if he was just ignoring the consequences of a big decision as if they didn’t matter (like many Gen-Y’ers before and since). At the end of it all, he “found himself” last night, trying – and failing – to take hold of the Olympic dream that he treated with such flippancy back in 2006.

We’ve all got decisions in our lives that we regret, things we’d like to take back years later, but we can’t. That much was clear from the look on Thorpe’s face and the stunned silence from the crowd last night.

The moral of the story – if you’re good at something, do it for as long as you are able to do it because you’re going to miss it like hell when it’s gone.

And a message to anyone with an extraordinary talent:

Those of us who are mere mortals, the people who cheer you on and can only dream of achieving the things you achieve, doing the things you can do – we don’t welcome you to the land of the mundane. We want you to stay remarkable. And once you become ‘normal’ like the rest of us, you’ll know why.

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Please don’t think I’m saying that Ian Thorpe is/was a wasted talent. He was extraordinary. I just think he wasted a few prime years in his athletic career, a career that we all enjoyed watching. I wish him good luck in whatever it is he chooses to do now. I just wish we could have cheered him on in Beijing instead of watching Phelps go unchallenged though the whole meet.

If it’s any consolation, I won’t remember Ian Thorpe for last night’s failure. This is my best Thorpe memory – that “guitar” episode from 2000.

The Americans had never lost this relay event since it’s inclusion in the games program in 1964. They knew we were coming, though, and US swimmer Gary Hall Jr thought he’d up the ante by saying they’d “smash us like guitars” in the lead-up to the event. Make sure you watch to around the 3:40 mark or just before, for the Aussie response to that particular taunt.

This is how I’ll remember Ian Thorpe’s stellar career. I just hope we can all learn lessons from the way it ended, both in 2006 and 2012.