Ian Thorpe, the world’s best swimmer before Michael Phelps came along, reflected on his rivalry with Phelps, his early retirement and more on a podcast with Australian Olympic teammate and swim coach Brett Hawke published Monday.
Thorpe won his first world title at age 15 in 1998, then earned three gold medals and two silvers as one of the most scrutinized athletes at the Sydney Games in 2000.
His Olympic career ended at age 21 in 2004, when he won another two gold medals, including the “Race of the Century” 200m freestyle final over Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband and Phelps. Phelps was 19 at the time.
“I may regret saying this, but I kind of wish Michael Phelps was kind of a little bit older,” Thorpe said on the podcast. “It would have challenged me. I would have had someone else there.”
Phelps revered Thorpe’s ability to perform under pressure as a teenager. Phelps also took motivation from Australian swim coach Don Talbot waving off suggestions that he could challenge Thorpe’s supremacy in the early 2000s.
Phelps’ ascension compared to Thorpe showed at the 2003 World Championships. Phelps, among three individual titles, won the 200m individual medley in 1:56.04, taking 1.9 seconds off his own world record at the meet. Thorpe earned silver in an Australian record, but a full two body lengths and 3.62 seconds behind.
Thorpe didn’t swim the 200m IM at the 2004 Olympics, but Phelps ventured into his territory by entering the 200m free and coming away with a hard-earned bronze in an American record.
“I have the utmost respect for Michael, what he was doing in [individual] medley, but then when he started doing it in freestyle as well, that is when I really went, wow, he was extraordinary,” said Thorpe, who called van den Hoogenband his toughest competitor (Thorpe and van den Hoogenband dueled more often than Thorpe and Phelps). “I wish that, you know, our careers overlapped a little bit more than what they did. … It’s like, be careful what you wish for, right?”
Thorpe intended to go for the 2008 Beijing Olympics after a break from swimming, but he never again swam on the major international stage, announcing retirement in 2006.
“There was no privacy around me being able to train,” Thorpe said. “When it came that I was getting papped at training, I was like, if I can’t even have this to myself, I don’t want the other part of it.”
Thorpe also said that he wanted to train through the Olympic cycle and skip the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne, but that “quite a few people” said he needed to race worlds if he had 2008 Olympic intentions.
“I moved on,” Thorpe said. “I made a decision that, yeah, I wouldn’t swim anymore because I wanted to feel like I had my life back.”
Thorpe’s enduring greatness can be measured in the fact that his 400m free personal best from 2002 remains the second-fastest time in history, bettered only in 2009 by .01 by German Paul Biedermann, who was racing in a now-banned super suit.
But Thorpe said it’s the men’s 200m freestyle that has become stagnant. None of the top 11 times in history were recorded in the time since the 2012 Olympics. Thorpe’s best time — from 2001 — would have won each of the last four world championships and the 2016 Olympic title.
“Basically, everyone in the world is swimming the 200m freestyle the wrong way,” he said. “You cannot swim easily for 150 meters, and then go into a sprint. I don’t care who your coach that is telling you that, you’re going to limit what time you can potentially do. At the moment, while the entire field sits across at the same speed, anyone who steps up in this race will win it if they’re within that realm. If you’re in the final at the moment, you can win at the Olympics next year. It’s about putting more speed into the earlier part of it, and it’s about making yourself hurt more. You have to be willing to deal with the pain that is going to exist for the last 50 meters.”
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