Olympic legends: Ian Thorpe – The Thorpedo

At 22, Ian Thorpe was the most titled Australian in Olympics history and also the greatest Olympian his country had ever produced. Then he retired from the sport altogether.

Ian Thorpe was crowned world champion in his pet event, the 400m freestyle, in Perth at 15 to become the youngest-ever male champion.   -  Getty Images

It is difficult for anyone to shoulder the responsibility of carrying their country at the Olympics. There is the pressure to live up to expectations, the backlash in the event of failure – more so if that country is sports-obsessed Australia. At just 18, Ian Thorpe was handed the tasked of winning the host nation’s first gold medal on the opening night of competition at Sydney 2000.

The myth of teenagers being unable to make it big at the Games was blown away at London 1948 by American Bob Mathias, who at 17 won the decathlon and thus gained the title of the youngest Olympic champion then. Mathias had only about four months of training before getting to London and was not fully aware of decathlon rules, and he almost blew his chances.

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Thankfully, Thorpe was better prepared. It was soon after his 10th birthday that Sydney gained the right to host the 2000 Games. The young Thorpe was excited with the news, but only two years into training, he hadn’t yet dreamt of making it to the Olympics. Thorpe settled into the pool almost straight away, but it took some time for him to make waves initially, and it was only after five years of rigorous training that he got noticed at the junior level nationally. However, things got up to speed almost immediately as he was crowned world champion in his pet event, the 400m freestyle, in Perth at 15 – the youngest-ever male champion.

All of a sudden, Sydney was well within his radar. But on the eve of his 17th birthday, with only 11 months left for the biggest sporting in his hometown to begin, Thorpe slipped and fell while on a morning run and fractured his left ankle, putting him at risk. Fortunately, the wound healed in quick time and Thorpe was fully prepared as the Games began.

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The roar that greeted him at the venue was deafening. As Thorpe sped away, the crowd was entirely on its feet. Thorpe also took a second gold medal that night as he anchored Australia in a thrilling win over the United States in the 400m freestyle relay final. He was to finish the Games with another gold and a silver.

At Athens 2004, Thorpe added four medals – two gold, one silver and a bronze. At 22, he was the most titled Australian in Olympics history and also the greatest Olympian his country had ever produced. Thorpe still looked good for more, but soon after turning 24, he made a surprise decision to retire from the sport altogether. He was gone in a flash in almost the same way he made his mark in the pool.

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