By Leigh Reinhold
Pictures: Ross Coffey
Olympic legend Ian Thorpe opens up on retirement, finding love and his first Olympics on the sidelines.
Ian Thorpe will be forever remembered as Australia's greatest Olympian. His unrivalled medal tally, world records and stunning performances in the pool gripped the world for years.
Far from retired since his decision to say goodbye to professional swimming, Ian, 25, has turned his attention to helping educate people about the environment and our country's great history of swimming. To celebrate his History Channel show The Spirit of Australian Sport: Swimming
, a relaxed and loved-up Ian sits down with Woman's Day
and ponders all aspects of his life, in and outside the pool.
We didn't know the "Australian Crawl" was invented by an South Pacific Islander and isn't Aussie after all?
Yeah. Everyone just presumes it's ours. It's almost like one of those Russell Crowe things where sometimes we claim him and sometimes we don't.
Why do you think we have produced so many champs?
I think we produced great swimmers because geographically we are surrounded by water, and that much of the population lives on the coast and wanting to be by the coast. And we are an athletic nation to start with because we're good at sport. I think those three elements combined allowed us to produce our first champions, and that was with no formal training but natural ability. Then we had some pioneers who helped along the way for the next generation of swimmers coming through, people like [swimming coach] Forbes Carlisle especially. He's a pioneer and isn't recognised enough. He helped put science into swimming, and now that has developed even further. We have arguably the best testing of athletes and that's accessible to all of our athletes.
If a swimmer did in Beijing what Dawn Fraser did in Tokyo during the 1964 Olympics, when she stole the Japanese flag, what would happen to them?
I think the headline would be "They've Done A Dawny". That story is part of our folklore now. Basically, the police in Japan gave the flag back to her with a bunch of flowers.
Who first showed you how to swim?
I think my mum was the first one who put me in a pool. I would have been little, two or something. I remember having early lessons so I wouldn't drown, but then I went off surfing and wasn't near a pool again until I was about eight. I had my first proper lesson when I was eight.
You said in the documentary The Spirit of Australian Sport Swimming on The History Channel that Craig Stevens' decision to give up his spot in the Athens Olympic 400m so you could swim was life-changing for you. Can you define that?
What had happened during that time was my realisation of how much baggage I had taken on over years of competing. It all culminated in that one particular moment. Once Craig gave over his position, then I had to try and work through that in the lead-up to the Olympics, having not dealt with it completely and then being expected to win the race. It was just expected that I would win like that's an easy thing to do! Regardless of the fact I had started training for other events, I wasn't as confident as I had been going into the competition. So In the back of my mind it was all those years of expectations really bubbling up to the surface.
It must have been a major relief touching first?
Before I even touched, I was just so furious with myself. It was the worst I had ever swum in my life, and I was annoyed that I had let all this emotion cloud me. It was the only time I had swum with emotion. It's not the right way to produce a result for me. When I touched the wall I was relieved and I could get on with the rest of the competition. Until that race was over I couldn't concentrate on anything else. I wouldn't change that now I am glad I did swim it with great emotion not the way I normally would to get the best performance.
You've said our medal tally in Beijing will fall somewhere between Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004. Who will be our biggest rivals in the pool?
The US. The Japanese and German teams will be reasonable, and the Dutch usually throw something out there, and the French and Italians. And I'm betting the Chinese have a few tricks up their sleeves we haven't seen yet.
Isn't there a Korean named Park Tae-hwan who claims he's going to smash your 400m record?
I haven't heard that about him, but I have heard the Koreans are talking him up.
How do you think Grant Hackett will go against him?
I'd say that if Grant's anywhere near his best in both the 400m and 1500m then he should be fine.
He's going to extreme measures. Did you read the piece where he's wearing oxygen masks on flights and not touching door handles?
No, he's using a humidifier. I did that too. But I didn't worry about touching doorknobs. I think germs are good for you.
What about the US swimmer Michael Phelps thanking you for firing him up by saying he couldn't win as many gold medals as he thinks he can?
Yeah, I find it a little odd, but I am glad to be a motivator for him. I have said that I don't think anyone will win eight gold but I still think that if there's anyone on the planet that's capable of it right now, then it is him. I wish him all the best for that. We're mates. Not close, it's not like there's a rivalry or anything. I'm just giving my opinion. If everything goes right for him then that's great for him.
Do you think doping will be a concern at the Olympics? What can officials do about this problem?
I think it should be an important question at all Olympics, and I think it's better to discuss it than to not discuss it. And making sure that people are aware that sport isn't 100 per cent clean and we have to keep putting the most pressure possible on all governing bodies to work together, so that when someone does an incredible performance we don't all say, "Were they taking drugs?" Sport loses its lustre if that happens, and that's detrimental to every little kid who looks up to the athletes.
How do you think you'd go if the team was suddenly down a man in the relay and they threw you a swimsuit?
No, it wouldn't happen! I'm not allowed to swim. It's not even an option.
How do you think you'd go if you were allowed?
Oh, I think there'd be better swimmers on the team! Absolutely! I'm a bit out of practice for a relay spot.
That 100m relay in the Sydney 2000 Olympics was a wonderful swim. Is that one of your highlights?
It is one my highlights, not only because I swam well but what was happening around it. I think that the people in Australia thought we all had a chance it was beautifully frustrating that people had so much hope in that relay team when really we didn't stand a chance. But it was right for the public to have faith because we won! It's one of those things I hadn't been an underdog for a long time and Australia loves an underdog, and that was nice being back in that position.
Would you swim in the Masters down the track like Dawn Fraser is about to do?
I don't know. I'd like the thought of competing again in swimming, just as long as no-one got to see it. But it just doesn't work like that. Swimming for me has become really personal again. I get down to the pool and have a swim, and if I'm stressed out it gets rid of all that stress. And I feel in the pool now like I am a kid again, like when I was first starting. I had lost that throughout my career and I realised that was the most important part of swimming to me. And now I have that back, so I don't want to jeopardise that.
Is it your meditation?
Yeah, it's close to. I stick my head in that blue water and it's a different world in there. It's really calming and whatever's happening in your life just floats away.
Have you hung out with any famous types in LA? Done any of your own star-spotting?
I do quite a lot of that. I don't enjoy the fame part of LA. I have lived with fame for the most part of my life that I can remember and I mean it's hilarious! Fame is one of the most stupid things. It makes no sense. But you live with it and deal with it and have a laugh about it, and sometimes you have a cry about it. Some days it's wonderful and some days it's terrible. And in LA I just catch up with friends and hang out.
You've got a lot of friends. You're a well-liked person. Do you spend a lot of time building relationships and keeping them?
I have a reasonable amount of friends, but not a huge amount of friends. I know a lot of people. Swimming is a close-knit group and you carry those friends for the rest of your life. It's similar to being a relative you might not see each other for a while and then you just start back up exactly where you left off. Because you've shared so many things together.
Have you re-done your house at home in Sydney yet?
I haven't done it yet! It's just a timing issue. I haven't been in Sydney much, and also the Olympics are now and I didn't think I'd have so much on because of the Olympics. I thought I could cruise into winter after spending one last summer in my old house before pulling it down and building the dream. And of course I was thinking it would take 12 months to build a house, and they are saying it's more like 18 months-2 years. I was shocked! It's also one of those things that if you want the perfect house you have to wait for it.
The ultimate TV program if you could make it would be...?
The highest-rating, highest-selling show on the planet. I think it's about making TV that is right for the now, something that gives the audience something they want.
Could you see yourself coaching one day?
No, I'll coach individuals, but it takes a special person to be able to coach a squad. It's a really big commitment because you get so involved with a group of people's lives. You have to be a psychologist and on call 24/7. Your family has to understand your commitment to a group of people who aren't your family, but are as close as family. It's an enormous commitment. Too hard ... and those early mornings!
The Spirit of Australian Sport Swimming premieres Wednesday, July 30 at 8:30pm on The History Channel.
For more of this interview, see this week's Woman's Day
(on sale July 21).
Will you miss watching the Thorpedo in this year's Olympics? Have your say below...