It is simple as far as five-time Olympic swimming champion Ian Thorpe is concerned: we must “remain positive, connect and communicate”. And with both the Australian’s sporting career and subsequent life emphasising triumph over adversity, he knows what he is talking about.
“I’d love to be outdoors and going about my regular routine, but unfortunately that’s not possible,” Ian Thorpe, Australia’s most decorated Olympian, said of the Covid-19 pandemic and the impact it is having on all walks of life.
“Instead I am reading books I haven’t had time to read, chatting with friends more often, and my hands have never been this clean. We have to remain positive.
“Fortunately, we live in a time with technology that allows us to communicate. We should be communicating with our loved ones as much as possible to stay connected and remind us that we are all in this together. For me, it’s as simple as promising to call my grandma twice a week instead of only once.
“This planet isn’t divided by nations but by the disconnect we create from not communicating, and now we have an opportunity to overcome this.”
One of the great opportunities the world will have to come together again in celebration will be the Olympic Games in Tokyo, now taking place from 23 July to 8 August 2021. And Thorpe, as he said on social media, is adamant that the postponement is the “correct decision”.
The postponement of the Olympics is the correct decision. The Olympics bring the world together and at this time, global togetherness is about being apart. #Tokyo2020ne— Ian Thorpe (@IanThorpe) March 25, 2020
The five-time Olympic champion knows all about taking advantage of opportunities at just the right moment. It is something he has been doing for as long as anyone can remember. First as a swimmer, and subsequently as an advocate for social issues ranging from gay rights to mental health, bullying and indigenous literacy. None of it has been simple, but the now 37-year-old Thorpe realises that it is all part of the journey.
The Sydney native burst onto the scene in 1998, winning gold at the World Championships in the 400m freestyle and 4x200m freestyle relay at the age of 15. Two years later, blessed with an armspan of 1.90m and size 17 feet, the teenager arrived at the Olympic Games Sydney 2000 with a heavy burden of expectation.
“I was making my Olympic debut; the pool I trained in had been transformed into an Olympic venue which felt unfamiliar; and I’d be stopped in the streets and told, ‘I can’t wait to watch you win your first gold medal, we’ve bought tickets to see you swim,’” Thorpe explained.
“As a 17-year-old, it was a lot to manage.”
Inside the pool he managed it in fine style. First up, he claimed the 400m freestyle title, Australia’s first gold of the Games; and then, just an hour later, he teamed up with his mates to inflict a first Olympic defeat on the USA in the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay. The host nation had a new star. Thorpe later added the 4x200m freestyle relay gold to his haul, as well as silver in both the 200m freestyle and the 4x100m medley.
Moments of extraordinary sporting glory continued to flow Thorpe’s way. In 2002, he broke the 400m freestyle world record at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester while looking as though he was having a gentle workout.
“I didn’t realise how fast I was swimming, and effortlessly broke the world record,” Thorpe said. “I wish I had tried harder.”
But even when the sport was coming easily to him, Thorpe was finding life out of the pool a whole heap harder. In retirement, he has been inspiringly open about the battles he has faced against crippling depression, issues with alcohol and suicidal thoughts.
For a man who can clearly remember watching as a nine-year-old when the cauldron was lit at Barcelona 1992, the Olympic Games were always the moments where everything collided.
“Going into Athens, I was the defending Olympic champion but I also had to deal with the added pressure that came with one of my friends [Craig Stevens] giving up their spot on the team for me to compete,” Thorpe said. “This added another dimension and I felt the added expectation to win, not for me but for him and everyone back home.”
Again, the man known as Thorpedo rose to the challenge. In what was, at the time, billed as the “race of the century”, the Australian triumphed over both America’s Michael Phelps and Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband to win a titanic 200m freestyle final. He also took gold in the 400m freestyle, along with silver in the 4x200m freestyle relay and bronze in the 100m freestyle.
Two years later he retired for the first time, aged just 24.
“When I look back at my swimming career, I am more impressed now than I was at the time, especially realising that I am now part of history,” the five-time Olympic champion said.
The subsequent 14 years have brought a myriad of achievements and challenges. Thorpe has stepped up and become a leading advocate for civil rights in his homeland. From successfully campaigning in support of Australia’s gay rights bill in 2017 to this year urging his government to scrap what he believes are damaging religious discrimination laws, the former swimmer has put himself on the front line.
“I am proud of the way I have lived my life since retiring, living with Olympic and athlete values and having an impact on people’s living, encouraging them to do their best,” he said.
A return to the pool between 2011 and 2013 did not deliver the third Olympic experience Thorpe was hoping for but, even so, he is delighted he gave it a go.
“Looking back, I wish I had started earlier,” Thorpe said. “The best thing to come out of my comeback was that I re-found my love for swimming, the way it felt when I was a child. I didn’t have that when I retired in 2006.”
And now, Thorpe, who is signed up to commentate for Australia’s Seven Network at Tokyo 2020 next year, is relying on the lessons he has learned.
“Although I set clear goals as an athlete, I realise that the path to getting to your goals is not always straight, and in reality it’s a pretty dirty, winding track,” he said.
“Ten years on, my ambition is to simply be a better person than I am now and be able to reflect on that, and know I worked every day to get there.”