Thorpe has done enough

Ian Thorpe's decision to retire stems from an understanding that he needn't measure his entire worth based on his swimming alone. There is more to his life than a pool and a stop-watch, writes Nandita Sridhar.

While trying to understand the mind of a sportsperson, especially a sporting genius, you risk losing your way in search of predictability and the norm. Almost like walking through a maze blindfolded, the thrill of the unknown, despite being in the dark, is what keeps one going, and guessing.

In this guessing game of retirements of sportspersons, almost no one gets it right simply because of its unpredictability. In sport, for every Martina Navratilova, there is an Ian Thorpe. For every Brian Lara, who is going strong at 37, producing enough sublime geometry with his bat for a double hundred, there is a 23-year-old Kim Clijsters whose racket threatens to settle down with mothballs in some dark cupboard, after she announced that she might quit next year.

This is precisely why, the initial reaction to the 24-year-old Thorpe's decision to quit swimming, was of shock. Why would someone who has won almost everything, broken almost every record (He became the youngest male world champion at 15), someone who has a lot to give to the sport and someone just a few strokes away from being called the `greatest', want to retire?

Maybe that's why. He's done enough, he's made the sacrifices, he stepped into professional swimming even as he was stepping into adolescence, he has had to cope with the rigours of professional sport while dealing with hormonal changes and he's had to practise discipline when it would have been easier to bite into a candy bar. At some point, these things get to you, and the results just don't seem worth the effort. In a sportsperson's mind, if the fear of the known (in his case, the same old routine, endless training and the sacrifices) is bigger than the unknown (life after retirement), it's time to go.

"I started asking a lot of questions, and I started to look at myself, not just as a swimmer, but as a person. Another way of looking at it is you can swim lap after lap, staring at a black line, and all of a sudden you look up and see what's around. That's what it feels like to me," said Thorpe.

His decision stems from an understanding that he needn't measure his entire worth based on his swimming alone. There is more to his life than a pool and a stop-watch. Deidre Anderson, the career transition specialist, who has helped to set up the national athlete career and education programme at the Australian Institute of Sport, which helps athletes make the transition from elite sport to retirement, was a major force behind Thorpe's decision. Former swimmer Shane Gould and American coach Milt Nelms also played their part in this crucial decision of Thorpe.

"I think we all have moments when we wonder why we do, what we do and in this case for Ian it's just the absolute intensity involved in swimming, it is not something that the average person can keep going with," said Deidre. The Australian is not alone in leaving when at the peak. Bjorn Borg's similar decision at the age of 26, after winning 11 Slams, left people stunned.

When you start peaking in your teens, trying to sustain the same level of excellence becomes more and more tiring. The motivation is missing, the spark no longer there, and a fear that you might never reach your peak again, is something not everyone can handle.

Eric "The King" Cantona's retirement at the age of 30, though not as early as Thorpe's and Borg's was no less shocking when Manchester United announced it. Netting a football probably seemed less inviting than facing a camera or brush stroking a canvas, but the decision was his. Priorities change, and when the sport fails to satisfy someone the same way as it used to, moving on is the only option. In individual sports, retirement issues are a little trickier. When it's in your hands, and never decided for you, you need to make your own judgment, which needn't always turn out to be right. Most successful geniuses, used to handling pressure, expectations, criticism and failure, somehow falter when deciding when to stop.

But Thorpe will not be one of them, and no one can fault his decision. For years, he stood out of the crowd, with those long and strong arms and legs leaving behind an almost massive wave. For those sharing his pool, hoping to succeed, he was an orca. For us, he was the `Human Fish'. It's time now for him to get in touch with life outside the pool.

But, is this the end? Will he come back? Will his place in 2008 be in a Beijing pool or on some expensive couch, a few feet away from a television set? He started succeeding when we least thought he would. He retired when we least thought he would. For all his denials, he might just come back when we least expect him to do.