Ian Thorpe

Cathy Freeman
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Who is Australia’s greatest Olympian?

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Australia has competed at every Summer Olympics and is best known for its swimmers, racking up 192 medals, nearly three times as many as its next-best sport, track and field. Despite ranking outside the world top 50 in population, it is eighth in all-time Summer Olympic medals. Australia is also the only nation in the Southern Hemisphere to earn a Winter Olympic gold medal, though this list is made up entirely of Summer Olympians …

Betty Cuthbert
Track and Field
Four Olympic Gold Medals

The only person to win Olympic titles in the 100m, 200m and 400m. Even more impressive, Cuthbert did it in a span of three Olympics from 1956-64. At age 18, she had bought tickets to attend the 1956 Melbourne Games, doubting she would qualify to compete. Not only did she make the team, she swept the 100m, 200m and 4x100m, earning the nickname “Golden Girl.” Cuthbert was slowed by a hamstring injury at the 1960 Rome Games, missing the medals. She returned 1964 to compete in one event, the Olympic debut of the women’s 400m, and earned another gold.

Dawn Fraser
Swimming
Four Olympic Gold Medals

Fraser’s medal haul — four golds, four silvers — would have been greater had the Olympic swimming program included the 50m and 200m freestyles in the 1950s and ’60s. Even so, she broke 27 individual world records in her career, according to Olympedia.org. She was so famous in Australia that a daffodil, rose and an orchid were named after her. Fraser’s Olympic career ended with the 1964 Tokyo Games, for she was suspended 10 years for her actions there. The alleged misconduct: Fraser marching in the Opening Ceremony (against Australia’s federation’s wishes as swimmers usually sit out before competing through the first week), wearing a swimsuit that wasn’t official team apparel and attempting to take an Olympic Flag from outside the Japanese emperor’s palace. The ban was reportedly stopped before the 1968 Olympics, but too late for her to race at a fourth Games.

Cathy Freeman
Track and Field
2000 Olympic 400m champion, cauldron lighter

Freeman’s significance goes beyond her gold medal. She was named Australian of the Year in 1998, two years before lighting the cauldron at the Sydney Olympic Opening Ceremony, a defining moment for her nation’s indigenous Aboriginal people. Ten days later, she lined up for the 400m final in front of 112,524 fans at Stadium Australia and 10 million more Australians on TV (more than half the population). In a green-and-white hooded speedsuit, she prevailed under unimaginable pressure. “Relief,” she said. “It was just relief. It was totally overwhelming because I could feel the crowd all around me, all over me.”

Rechelle Hawkes
Field Hockey
Three Olympic Gold Medals (2000)

The only woman with three Olympic field hockey gold medals. Hawkes debuted with the national team in 1985, the year she turned 18, captained the team from 1993-2000 (when they won every international event save one) and played 279 games for the Hockeyroos through her last Olympics in 2000.

Ian Thorpe
Swimming
Five Olympic Gold Medals

The Thorpedo was one of Australia’s most famous people when the nation was the world’s focus during the 2000 Sydney Games. At 17, he earned three gold medals and two silvers. He was the world’s best swimmer, though surpassed by Michael Phelps by the end of 2003. Still, Thorpe held four world records going into the 2004 Athens Games (200m and 400m freestyles, 4x100m and 4x200m free relays). He won the 200m and 400m frees in Athens, the former over Phelps and Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband dubbed the Race of the Century. Thorpe bowed out from major international competition at age 21, announcing his retirement two years later, citing a lack of desire.

James Tomkins
Rowing (2008)
Three Olympic Gold Medals

A gold medalist at three different Games. A world champion in all five sweep events. His global titles spanned from 1986 to 2004. Tomkins, during his rowing career, also earned a degree in economics and finance, surfed and worked for Bankers Trust, a large bank in Australia.

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Ian Thorpe: I wish Michael Phelps was a bit older

Ian Thorpe, Michael Phelps
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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.”

MORE: Caeleb Dressel co-hosts a podcast. It’s not about swimming

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Prince William lauds Michael Phelps at SPOTY (video)

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Michael Phelps landed a second honor for his unrivaled Olympic career in a week at BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year ceremony Sunday night.

The 23-time Olympic champion was bestowed a lifetime achievement award by Prince William with Phelps’ old Australian rival Ian Thorpe to their side.

“You are one of the greatest sporting icons that sport has ever had, and your 23 gold medals, never mind all the other colors, pales into sheer superhuman history,” the prince said to Phelps on stage. “You should be so proud of your achievements. It’ll be many, many years before, if ever, anyone stands here again and calls you the greatest athlete in history. So, many, many congratulations. Hopefully your retirement gives someone else a chance now.”

Last Monday, Phelps was honored as the greatest Olympian of all time by Sports Illustrated.

MORE: Phelps reveals specific goals from Rio Olympics