He didn't come to the interview room. He didn't come and didn't
come, and still everyone waited for Ian Thorpe. His race had been
finished for almost two hours, and he didn't come. "He's in the
warm-down pool," an official from the Sydney Olympics announced
"He's in doping," she said maybe a half hour later.
"He's at some obscure IOC function," she said a half hour after
that, "but we'll get him out of there."
The winners at the Aquatics Center on Monday night arrived one
after another and told their stories and shared their joy. There
was Diana Mocanu from Romania, the 100-meter backstroke champion,
telling what it felt like to win the first swimming gold medal in
her country's history. There was Lenny Krayzelburg of the U.S.,
winner of the men's 100 back, telling his tale of emigrating from
the Soviet Union and landing in Southern California and now in
Sydney with a gold medal around his neck. There was no Thorpe.
September 24, 2000
The arrival of Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands, the
22-year-old winner of the 200 free, aroused interest because he
had beaten Thorpe. The margin was a solid .48 of a second. The
time of 1:45.35 matched the world record Van den Hoogenband had
set in a semifinal on Sunday. How had he won? What had been his
strategy? His answers, in halting English--"I pushed off the wall
on my last turn and saw I was ahead and said, I am going win a
gold medal; it's unbelievable"--were duly recorded, but mostly to
kill time. The wait was for Thorpe, the 17-year-old silver
medalist from Australia.
Where was he? Autopsies had to be performed on an instant legend.
Obituaries had to be written.
For the first two full days of competition Thorpe had been the
face of the 2000 Olympics. Swimming had been the No. 1 sport of
the Games. The Aquatics Center had been the heart and soul of
host Australia's presentation to the world. Hey, look at us. Hey,
look at what we can do. Hey, look at this man-child, this
wunderkind. Thorpie! The Thorpedo. Look! For two days he had been
In an hour's time on Saturday night he had won the 400 free with
ease, breaking his own world mark, and then come back after the
medal ceremony to anchor an amazing upset of the U.S. in the
4x100 freestyle relay, a race of high drama and record speed,
maybe the best relay race in history. Thorpe was a jolt of
high-voltage electricity that went through his sport and his
country. "I saw him on the bus coming over here," Dara Torres of
the U.S. said that night, after she had won her own gold in the
women's 4x100 free. "I'd never seen him. He had such large hands.
I kept trying to get a look at his feet? And I did. Wow. I said
to myself, This isn't a boy. This is a man!"
The buzz had been building for years. A prodigy at 15, already
called by his coach, Don Talbot, "the swimmer of the century,"
Thorpe was now a combination of Tom Sawyer, Ricky Martin and
maybe the young Abe Lincoln (Australian versions). He was the
favorite son of every mother in the country, courteous and
well-spoken, an absolute Boy Scout, a national treasure.
Did anyone not know the particulars of his life? He was the
perfect kid from Mil- perra, a Sydney suburb. His feet were size
17--seventeen, for goodness' sake--virtual flippers. His mum was
Margaret. He loved her cooking! His dad was Ken, a former semipro
cricket player. His sister was Christina, a former swimmer. His
dog was Tiny, a miniature fox terrier. His favorite band was the
Red Hot Chili Peppers. His favorite actor was Adam Sandler. He
was 6'4", 213 pounds! He didn't like to clean his room! His
secret ambition was to appear on Friends!
Oh, yes, and he was the best swimmer ever built, the evolutionary
result of all the swimmers who had churned through all the pools
for all time. "You look at the underwater films of him, and he
does all the things we're trying to teach our kids every day,"
Dave Salo, a U.S. assistant coach, said. "You look at his elbows
extended, the way he uses his hands as levers, the long-footed
kicks. He's a combination of everything."
"You start with his size," Richard Quick, the U.S. women's coach,
said. "He has such strength but at the same time has such a
natural feel for the water. Plus a tremendous engine. He could
swim, I think, any distance. Put him in the 50, the 100, and I
don't say he'd win, but he'd be right there. Put him in the mile,
the 1,500, same thing. He'd be around at the end."
His showcase was the final leg of the 4x100. The U.S. had never
lost this race in the Olympics or the world championships. The
event had the same MADE IN AMERICA stamp that the Dream Team has
put on basketball. The Australians had beaten the U.S. a year ago
at the Pan-Pacific Championships in the Olympic pool, but the
Americans noted that U.S. sprint champion and top anchor Gary
Hall Jr. wasn't at that meet. He was here now, as cocky as ever,
promising that the Americans would "break the Australians like
guitars." He was matched against Thorpe.
"What Hall said didn't bother us," Australian sprint star Michael
Klim said. "This isn't a sport with physical contact. You swim
your own race. You could see on paper, the times of everyone,
that it was going to be a very close race."
Close it was. The Australians top-loaded their lineup, sending
Klim out first against young Anthony Ervin. Klim responded by
churning 100 meters in 48.18, a world record for the distance.
Ervin responded by swimming a 48.89, a personal best. The Aussies
had a lead of .71 of a second.
The race went into a pattern. On each succeeding leg the
Americans (Neil Walker, then Jason Lezak and then Hall) erased
the Aussie lead by the turn at the end of the first 50 meters. On
the second 50 meters, each Australian (Chris Fydler, then Ashley
Callus and then Thorpe) regained the edge. The Americans were in
lane 4 and the Australians in lane 5, so going down the pool,
breathing on the right side, the Americans were blind to what the
Aussies were doing. Coming back, able to peek through their
goggles as they took their breaths, they could see first that
they were in the lead, then, oh, my, they weren't in the lead.
The back-and-forth exchanges of the lead, swimming caps bobbing
along, looked from the stands like one of those dot races on a
stadium megaboard, the winner unclear until the end.
Thorpe's final leg had the crowd of 17,500 howling as he tracked
down Hall. ("The loudest noise I've ever heard in an arena," Hall
of Fame former Boston Celtic John Havlicek, a spectator, said.
"And I've heard some noises.") The finish was so close that all
the competitors--Thorpe and Hall in the pool, the others standing
on the deck--had to look at the scoreboard to see the result. The
howling became a roar of national pride. Both teams broke the
world record by more than a second. The Australians finished at
3:13.67, .19 ahead of the Americans. "I doff my swimming cap to
Ian Thorpe," Hall said. "He swam a great race. But we swam a
great race, too. I've been on a lot of relay teams that have won
a lot of races, but this is the best relay team I've ever been
"This was the best day of my life," Thorpe said. "This was the
best hour of my life. These were the best minutes of my life."
The win sent Australia into a tizzy. IT'S OUR POOL! one headline
screamed. Swimming is nearly as important in Australia as the NBA
or NFL is in the U.S. The best pool in the world--a $100 million
production, built to deep-water, deep-gutter specifications to
ensure a still surface and the best chance of records--now had the
best home team in the world. And the best home team had the best
swimmer in the world.
"I'm pleased I'm one of the few athletes who have performed at
their best in an Olympics," said Thorpe. "I've researched that.
The statistics are slim, the number of athletes who have
performed at their best in the Olympics."
There was speculation about how much money Thorpe would make in
endorsements and appearance fees in the years ahead; $5 million
was a conservative estimate. It was reported that IOC officials
were worried about the amounts of money being wagered at
Australia's legal betting parlors on a Thorpe victory on Tuesday
night in the 200 free. The odds were quoted as 1 to 50.
He finally appeared at the interview room just as the final
winner of the night, teenager Megan Quann of the U.S., who had
won the 100 breaststroke, was finishing her press conference. She
had said an interesting thing: "I think everyone on our team
responded after that first night, after what happened in the
4x100. We all decided that we had to work harder, push past the
hard times. You saw it tonight with Lenny and me. You saw it last
night when we went one-two in two races, when Tom Dolan [in the
400 individual medley, with Erik Vendt second] and Brooke Bennett
[in the women's 400 free, with Diana Munz] won."
The atmosphere had changed. The Americans were back, piling up
the medals. Quann, a 16-year-old from Puyallup, Wash., was an
example. She was America's own golden child, who had boldly
predicted that she would defeat reigning world-record-holder
Penny Heyns of South Africa and had then done it. She was so
young that for attending the Olympics, she was receiving a
phys-ed credit from Rogers High, where she was a junior. "There
might be extra credit for a gold medal," she said, "I'm not sure.
We'll have to talk about that."
The fast pool made everyone fast, no matter what nation's name
was on the warmup shirt. The favorite Australian sport was still
everyone's sport. Winners were coming from every direction, and
records were falling everywhere. As for the sure thing, well,
there were no sure things. Not in the Olympics.
"There's an old saying," a reporter from Singapore said, asking
Thorpe the first question. "You win to get a gold medal. You lose
to get silver. Do you go along with that?"
"No, not at all," Thorpe replied. "I'm happy with my result. I
put everything into my race. I felt I would go a little faster,
but these are the Olympic Games. Every athlete out there is
The commentators had said on television that the flu had bothered
Thorpe, but he didn't say that. He complimented van den
Hoogenband on a great race. He said that the pressure of a
nation's expectations didn't bother him, that the only pressure
he felt was the pressure he put on himself. He said maybe he was
a little flat, maybe he went out too fast, maybe not fast enough.
Maybe. Maybe. Who could tell?
He looked older now, maybe because he wasn't smiling. He was the
same kid, thoughtful and mature, pleasant, the same kid who, two
days earlier, had a shot at four gold medals in four days and was
going to be known forever as the hero of Australian heroes. He
simply didn't have the shot anymore. The best he could do was win
a third gold medal on Tuesday night in the 4x200 relay. He could
not be perfect.
"What do you think about tomorrow?" a reporter asked.
"Tomorrow's a different day," Thorpe said. "Every day's a
different day. Today was a different day."
This was true.
IT'S OUR POOL! screamed one headline after the Australian men's
relay win over the U.S.
The fast pool made everyone fast. Winners were coming from every
direction and records falling everywhere.
Quann was so young that for attending the Olympics, she was
receiving phys-ed credit.