Reflecting on his illustrious career, Australian swimming legend Ian Thorpe reveals what advice he would now offer to his younger self.
Looking through his impressive list of achievements, you could be forgiven for thinking that Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe would have very little to change about his glittering career.
His five Olympic gold medals are the most won by any Australian athlete. With three gold and two silver medals, he was the most decorated athlete at the Olympic Games Sydney 2000 – at the age of just 17. A year later, he became the first person to win six gold medals in a single edition of the World Aquatics Championships. And his total of 11 world titles is the third most by any swimmer.
But despite all of this, the man dubbed “Thorpedo” still believes there are certain things he would do differently if given the chance again.
Don’t let the moment pass you by
“If I could go back and give any advice to myself about the Olympic Games, I would have allowed myself to enjoy it more when I was there,” he reveals. “I was so focused on results and I had to swim on multiple nights to get those results, but there was probably enough time to enjoy it just a little bit more. Not much, but maybe enough to let myself appreciate what I’d just done rather than focusing on what was next.”
Thorpe certainly had plenty to celebrate at his first Olympic Games, which were held on home soil in Sydney in 2000. On the opening night of competition, he broke his own world record to win gold in the 400m freestyle, before combining with Michael Klim, Chris Fydler and Ashley Callus to inflict the USA’s first-ever defeat in the 4x100m freestyle relay, topping the podium in another world record time. Just two days later, he earned a silver medal behind Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband in the 200m freestyle, before swimming the lead-off leg for the Australian 4x200m freestyle relay team, which won gold in yet another world record time.
“When you’re competing at your first Olympic Games, you really just need to grasp the opportunity, because of how rare it is for anyone,” explains Thorpe. “When you look at how many people and what percentage of the world could possibly be an Olympian, you’re in a very elite group. You should be grateful for that opportunity and really grasp it and make the most of it. And try not to worry about nerves; everyone’s as equally nervous as you are!”
Embrace a champion’s mindset
Despite being the hometown favourite in Sydney, with the huge weight of expectation on his shoulders, Thorpe displayed few signs of nerves at those Games, and soon found himself in a unique position: an Olympic champion and national hero at the age of just 17. It was a status that few others could understand.
“People will always try to offer advice, but some of it isn’t always helpful,” he says. “I remember being told one thing that really bugged me. That was: ‘When you reach number one, you should train like you’re number two.’ That really irritated the hell out of me. If you make it to number one, you should train like you’re number one. Why would you ever accept second best?
“One-liners like that might sound great on the surface. But when you think about it, that mentality doesn’t carry through, because you’re no longer in the second position. You’re no longer the underdog. You have to think like the champion to be able to get the results of a champion.”
Accept your status on and off the field of play
Thorpe carried that mentality into his next Games in Athens in 2004 when he was faced with another new challenge as the defending champion.
“It’s harder to be the champion and defend,” he explains. “There’s far more pressure. Even when you get introduced to the crowd, they list all of your achievements and then they finish with ‘and defending Olympic champion’. That all makes it far more difficult and, of course, you know what it’s like [to be an Olympic champion]; you have all of that experience. So I think you know to place a higher value on the result than other people. They are going into it with an unknown, whereas you’re going in with this knowledge of what it’s like and wanting to retain that.”
Even with the increased expectations, Thorpe was able to deliver again in Athens, successfully defending his 400m freestyle crown and winning the so-called “Race of the Century” against Van den Hoogenband, Grant Hackett and a certain Michael Phelps in the 200m freestyle, setting a new Olympic record in the process.
With a silver in the 4x200m freestyle and a bronze in the 100m freestyle, Thorpe took his Olympic medal tally to nine, making him Australia’s most successful Olympian and turning him into an idol for many young people.
“You don’t know when it happens, but as an Olympian, you obviously do become a role model,” he says. “I used to get boxes of mail delivered; I’d get thousands a day. At the time I thought, ‘Okay, this is too much to bear. I don’t know how I’m going to respond to all of these.’ But it’s nice [to know that people are looking up to you]. There’s a responsibility that does come with that, that at times can make it feel like it’s a little bit too much. But overall, you have the ability to really make someone’s day, and it’s a unique thing. So, you should try and embrace it as much as possible.”
Don’t forget about your post-sports career
While the benefit of hindsight may well have allowed Thorpe to enjoy his Olympic experiences a little more or better cope with the pressures of success, perhaps it is in preparing for retirement that his reflective advice could best have been heeded.
“I think you have to prepare for it while you’re still involved in your sporting career,” Thorpe says. “When you look at sport as part of your lifestyle, it’s very hard to replace that with something else straight away, and I think you have to ease yourself into something. For me, it was very difficult. There were a lot of other things that I would have liked to have achieved and probably could have achieved in the sport. But what the sport meant to me was more than that, and I didn’t want to lose myself in the sport, to not love it the same way as I did as a child. And it was starting to feel that way. For me, it had started to become a chore. It had nothing to do with the training. It had nothing to do with the sport. It was just everything else that came with it.”
And after overcoming the struggles that came with his career transition, Thorpe is now looking forward to the next chapter of his life.
“I just want to enjoy everything that I do, to have passion in my life and live a life with integrity. I have a number of things I would like to continue doing, but I would hope that I could continue to inspire people as well.”