Publish date:

Ian Thorpe will make or break his comeback at Aussie Olympic Trials


(AP) -- The man known around the world as The Thorpedo is about to face his moment of truth.

Ian Thorpe's comeback from retirement has been so closely scrutinized Down Under that he has had to prepare in Europe.

So when he arrived in Adelaide two days ahead of the Australian Olympic trials for London 2012, national media carried immediate news confirming he had touched down in the South Australia state capital.

And the 3,000-seat venue hosting the eight-day meet beginning Thursday is expected to be at capacity on Saturday night if Thorpe makes the final of the 200-meter freestyle.

For all his experience - five Olympic gold medals, 13 individual long-course world records, multitude of world, Commonwealth and Pan-Pacific titles - the 29-year-old Thorpe concedes he is facing something new. The prospect that his Olympic dream could vanish in a matter of days.

"I'm nervous," Thorpe admitted Wednesday, on the eve of the trials. "I'm not sure how fast I can go."

There are 88 other swimmers competing for spots on the Australian squad, including 100-meter world champion James "The Missile" Magnussen, triple Beijing Olympics gold medalist Stephanie Rice, and other former champions making comebacks such as Libby Trickett, Geoff Huegill and Michael Klim. But most of the attention has focused on Thorpe, who might only qualify for a relay spot.

Or, maybe not qualify at all.

The trials will be televised live in prime time and, due to what the local media is calling "Thorpe mania," the crowds, media coverage and sponsorships are better than they have been in years for swimming in Australia.

"I know it's kind of eagerly anticipated," Thorpe said this week. "I've been preparing for this for about 18 months now so I'm nervous, just like probably everyone else."

Thorpe will compete only in the 100- and 200-meter freestyle. He needs to finish first or second in either event to earn an individual spot at London, or finish in the top six to have a chance of selection as a relay swimmer.

Asked if he could win the 200, Thorpe said he hadn't swum fast enough yet to be confident.

"I'll be trying to, I think I'll have to" to ensure selection, he said.

Thorpe has swum thousands of miles since he burst onto the international swimming scene as a boy with size 17 feet in 1999, then confirmed his talent with three gold medals - all in world-record time - at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He retired in 2006, tired of training and constantly being in the public glare. His last major championship was the 2004 Athens Olympics, where he won gold in the 200- and 400-meter freestyle.

Watching from the sidelines four years ago at Beijing, where American Michael Phelps won eight gold medals, made Thorpe hungry to return to the Olympics.

"There will be a tremendous sense of relief when it happens," Thorpe said. "It would be comparable to me making my first Olympic team."

SI Recommends

His training in Switzerland has been financed by Swimming Australia, drawing some criticism - mostly anonymous - from other swimmers that the money should have gone into developing younger talent.

Thorpe denied he had been paid to swim and said he had received funding like other athletes for training and preparing, and was happy to explain his situation to any swimmer.

Australia head coach Leigh Nugent was confident that the spending on Thorpe's comeback was fair.

"Ian can't prepare really in Australia - he just attracts so much attention, he doesn't get left alone," said Nugent, adding that it was reasonable to help experienced swimmers on their returns to international swimming. "I can only see positives in this and I think it would be a pretty ungrateful person and a pretty ungrateful Australian to not assist our proven best performers."

Thorpe's times since his comeback have been well below the times he posted at his peak. Some critics think he's been 'foxing,' by deliberately holding himself back in competition.

"I have been asked this by friends, as well, and there may have been a period when I first started back in swimming and I was hoping that I might be able to do it," Thorpe said Wednesday. "But unfortunately I haven't had that luxury. So frankly, no."

At least it was a step up from his doubts last week that he would even make it to London.

"The most realistic outcome of this is that I will most likely fail," he said in a television interview. "I wish I had another six months to do this."

Now, he has less than five before the Olympics begin.

In his first meets back from retirement, Thorpe struggled at short-course World Cup meets in Singapore, Beijing and Tokyo in November. That form was repeated in subsequent Olympic-distance races in Australia and Europe.

"All of the expectation, that desire to see me do well, it exists for me in a way that it doesn't exist for other people," Thorpe said.

Nugent has been monitoring Thorpe's comeback closely and is confident the champion swimmer will rise to the occasion.

"He's probably in the best physical shape he's been in the whole preparation," Nugent said. "For Ian, I think now it's like: 'I've done all that and this is a whole new ball game now. I'm getting ready for the real deal."'

Magnussen is expected to be too fast for Thorpe in the 100, but he isn't concerned about taking a back seat in the pre-meet Thorpe-mania.

"I'm sure it will be probably more hype surrounding Ian Thorpe than me," Magnussen said. "I'm happy to go under the radar and just get about my business and, once we get to the final, sort of do what I intend on doing."

The most focus on opening day will be on Rice and how her right shoulder handles the 400 individual medley - she swept the 200 and 400 gold IMs at Beijing. The 23-year-old Rice had arthroscopic surgery in December and is slowly making her way back.

"If she doesn't get in the top two she's not in the team. She knows what's as stake," Rice's coach, Michael Bohl said. "She's in there to win it. She won't be holding anything back."