August 24, 2000


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Thorpedo ready to explode

Julian Linden in Sydney

Ian Thorpe, the teen sensationSurrounded by oceans, Australians have always loved and admired their swimmers.

And in Ian Thorpe, the Sydney teenager tipped to win a stack of gold medals at next month's Olympics, they have a young freestyler they believe is so good that he doesn't just walk on water, he runs.

The 17-year-old "Thorpedo" has taken the swimming world by storm since he burst onto the international stage in 1997.

Australia's head swimming coach Don Talbot has been involved in the sport for more than 40 years and seen the best that swimming has had to offer. He believes Thorpe is something special.

"I go to bed at night and say my prayers and thank God that we have got him," Talbot said. "He could be the greatest swimmer we've ever had and maybe the greatest swimmer the world has ever seen."

Thorpe's amazing performances over the past 2-1/2 years suggest he could win four gold medals in the Sydney International Aquatic Centre, less than 10 kms from his family's suburban home.

His smiling face is plastered on thousands of billboards around the Olympic city and he is already mentioned in the same breath as Greg Norman, Patrick Rafter and Shane Warne as Australia's most famous contemporary sportsmen.

Even Talbot, who is normally reluctant to praise his young charges, has fallen into the trap, labelling Thorpe as the greatest swimmer in a century even though he is still a month away from his first Olympics.

Thorpe is the red-hot favourite in both the 200 and 400 metre freestyle events, races in which he already holds the world records. He is also the lead-off swimmer in the Australian 4x200 team, who also hold the world record and currently boasts three of the four fastest men in history, and a member of the 4x100 quartet, another strong gold medal contender.

He claimed the 400 world record from compatriot Kieren Perkins at the 1999 Pan Pacific championships in the Olympic pool, wiping almost two seconds off the five-year-old mark. He broke the 200 record the next day, then again the following evening. On the fourth day, he led the relay team to another world record.

At this year's Australian Olympic trials, Thorpe did it all again, lowering his 400 and 200 (twice) records even further.

So dominant is he in those two events, that Thorpe's main rivals are already running scared. His fellow Australian Michael Klim, who won the 200 crown at the 1998 world championships, finished second behind Thorpe but announced he would not compete in the 200 at the Olympics because he had no chance of beating him and wanted to concentrate on his other events.

Thorpe has been earmarked for greatness since 1996 when he won 10 titles at the national age-group championships, eight in record time. A year later, he became the youngest male to make an Australian senior team when he was picked for the 1997 Pan Pacific championships in Japan, where he won two silver medals.

In 1998, Thorpe became the youngest world champion in swimming history, winning the 400 final with a devastating late burst. That same year, he won four gold medals at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur and helped the 4x200 relay team break the world record.

He set his first individual world record in 400 at the 1998 Australian short-course championships. A month before the Olympics, his tally of individual world records stood at 10.

The key to Thorpe's success seems to lie in his rare combination of physical and mental gifts. For a 17-year-old, he is remarkably mature and, at almost 200 cm, is tall for his age. He also has unusually large feet which he uses like flippers and powerful legs that propel him to the wall.

He rides high in the water and while most swimmers are starting to tire at the end of their races as the lactic acid levels build, Thorpe always has plenty in reserve.

His supports and rivals alike say he has revolutionised men's freestyle swimming, transforming the 400 freestyle from a middle-distance tactical race to an eight-lap sprint.

But his stunning rise has not been free of controversy, with some of his rivals questioning the validity of his performances.

German team captain Chris Carol-Bremer, suggested Thorpe's large feet might have been the result of long-term doping. He claimed he had been misquoted and personally apologised to the Australian.

Determined to prove his detractors wrong, Thorpe dealt with their accusations as swiftly and clinically as he treats his opponents in the pool, offering to be the first athlete at the Sydney Games to undergo a blood test.

"I'm getting used to it. It's a tactic to try to distract me from what I am doing," Thorpe said.

"At this stage it is not working - I am just as determined to succeed. The more emphasis people try to put on me being on something is really the biggest compliment anyone can possibly give me."

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