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Ian Thorpe and the failed Olympic comeback (Short Story)



Originally published by Two Wolves Digest


It would happen about once every six weeks when I was fourteen, back in 2006. We would turn up to school, tired, barely on time, somewhat ready to learn, and then bam: “Everyone to the gym. Now. No class this morning. Go to the gym, please. Now, thank you.”


We knew what it meant… another boring guest speaker. For some reason, at this age, we endured a lot of these unannounced school talks, typically led by guests that couldn’t have possibly been interesting to us. I guess our teachers figured we were at our most impressionable.


The topic of these talks was always kept a mystery until it was too late to escape, and the last few times were particularly bad. We had been lectured by a stern middle-aged woman dressed almost entirely in purple about how digital footprints lasted forever. She had made some good points, but had kept referring to Facebook as Facebooks, which didn’t help her credibility.


We had learned that drugs would cause trouble at our parties and deep addiction issues later in life from a chubby, bald, highly spirited Jehovah’s witness whose strategies to eradicate drugs from our lives sounded suspiciously like the process for becoming a Jehovah’s witness.


There was one about sex and consent — the most uncomfortable of all. Who wants to hear about sexual assault issues between teachers and students while the teachers are standing right there in the room?

That’s the kind of stuff we were dealing with. These talks exhausted both our already fatigued brains and our sitting bones as we were left exposed for an indeterminate amount of time to unbridled indoctrination and hardwood gym floors.


But this time, the feeling was different. There had been a leak from the staff room, and as we turned up at school this particular morning, the rumours quickly circulated that Ian Thorpe — one of Australia’s most successful Olympic athletes of all time and apparently a former student at our school — was to be the guest of our latest talk.


The man was a freak of nature. By the time he was our age, he already had size 17 feet and had become the youngest male swimmer to ever represent Australia. Now, he had nine Olympic medals. Five golds. It had only been a few months since the shock announcement of Thorpe’s early retirement from professional swimming, but some of the teachers (the ones who had refused to retire long enough that they were around when Thorpe was still a student) saw the opportunity to chase down his details and invite him to speak.

Amongst the student body, interest had been commanded.


But my mind was elsewhere. Our school swimming carnival was coming up in two weeks. I hadn’t hit puberty yet, still had my puppy fat, and was a terrible swimmer. I could barely swim fifty metres, which was the shortest race available. I could get away with a dodgy freestyle, but I preferred backstroke since it allowed my head to stay above water. These were a worrying sum of circumstances, and if things remained unchanged, I would soon be humiliated in front of everyone. Coming last in a public, half-naked race was not an option I was willing to entertain.


As we entered the school gym that day – a vast, floorboarded room with small windows and smaller navy velvet curtains, letting in sunlight that spotlighted floating dust and fermented the smell of feet – speculation ran rife as to what Ian Thorpe would be talking to us about. Surely it couldn’t be another school-ordained lecture about an issue we didn’t yet care about? We took our seats in tentative groups on the floor.


Ian Thorpe stepped up to the lectern at the front of the gym, and over the course of an hour and a half, he opened his heart to us. He talked about what it meant to truly work hard for something, how he got through some of the toughest moments in his career, and how education and philanthropy were crucial in shaping him not only as an athlete, but as a well-rounded member of the community. Despite his towering size, Ian Thorpe was remarkably gentle. He told stories that kept the whole room silent in suspense in one moment, and laughing from our stomachs the next.


Thorpe ended his talk to enthusiastic applause. He reminded us to cherish our time at school, because it may not seem like it, but it truly would become a treasured time of our lives (we had heard this last part before, and the fact it was repeated so often had started to become a haunting indictment of what was to come in adulthood). But we didn’t let that get in the way of what was an otherwise riveting morning.


The teachers, some of whom were visibly emotional, formally thanked Ian Thorpe themselves rather than recruiting a reluctant house captain like they usually did, congratulating him for being such a lovely person, and for what was truly one of the most significant visits the school had had in recent memory. At that moment, I wondered if the teachers had themselves learnt something about the importance of showing kindness to their students, both alumni and current.


As everyone applauded once again and began filing out the back of the hall, bonding over their favourite moments of the talk, I asked one of the more emotional teachers if I could thank Mr Thorpe personally. Between sniffles, she encouraged me to go ahead, ushering me towards Ian Thorpe, who was gathering his notes at the lectern.


“Hi Mr Thorpe, I just wanted to say thank you for the talk. Great stuff. Really funny stories.”


“Oh, thank you,” said Ian Thorpe, almost blushing. “I actually get pretty nervous about public speaking. I’m glad you enjoyed it.”


Over my shoulder, I watched the last of the students and teachers exit the hall. Then I dropped the act.


“Alright, listen up Thorpedo. Swim Carnival is two weeks away. I’m a lousy swimmer and I’m not interested in losing. So cough it up. What’s the secret to swimming?”


“Oh, um, okay,” he stuttered. “Well, I suppose it’s no different to anything else, really. You just have to train and work really hard at it. But I’m sure if you just do your best at the Carnival you’ll have fun, that’s what it’s all about, really.”


I stepped closer, speaking slower this time.


“Tell. Me. The. Secret.”


Ian Thorpe inched back, his broad frame quickly running out of space in the corner of the vast, empty room.


“Look, I’m sorry. I don’t really know what you want me to say. There’s no secret,” he lied.


“Don’t fuck with me, Thorpe. Look around. Notice how there’s no one else in this hall?”


Ian Thorpe recognised this to be true, but in a ‘so what?’ kind of way. So I played ball.


“I happen to know that we’re not supposed to be unsupervised at school with adults. I make one allegation of sexual assault, and it’s my word against yours.”


“Woah, um, okay,” said Ian Thorpe, eyes darting around the room. “I don’t think, um… I think I’m gonna get going.”


I reached my hand out to the lectern, blocking his path. Then, in a nifty sleight of hand, I drew my Motorola flip phone from my pocket, pulled my school shorts halfway down, and snapped a selfie of a suspect-looking Ian Thorpe standing next to a vulnerable 14-year-old school boy.


“Woah! What are you doing!?” Ian Thorpe threw his hands up.


I wiggled my shorts back up and checked the photo. It didn’t look good for Ian Thorpe. I locked my phone and tucked it back into my pocket.


“If this goes on the internet,” I warned, “it won’t go away. Once the news outlets get a hold of it, that’s it. Questions will be asked. A Current Affair will be licking their lips. Even if you deny any wrong-doing, there will always be people who don’t believe you. Your legacy will be tarnished. Digital footprints are forever.”


A shocked Ian Thorpe, looking to say something, anything, said nothing.


I filled the silence for him. “Here’s how this works. You tell me the secret to swimming. Actually, you know what? Backstroke is my stroke. Tell me the secret to backstroke. Then I delete the photo. It’s that simple. Your legacy. Your call.”


Ian Thorpe shook his head in disbelief and exhaled. He shuffled his notes by his hip, indecision on his lips.


“Help, HELP!” I called out, firing a warning shot, my voice echoing into the floorboarded void behind us.


“Okay! Okay,” he said, shushing me. “Stop. I’ll tell you the secret. I’ll tell you the secret. Then you delete the photo, right?”


“That’s what I said.”


So Ian Thorpe told me the secret to backstroke. He told me, apart from the basics that everyone learns in primary school (head back, kick through the hips, arms straight, thumb first out of the water, pinky first into the water, blah, blah, blah) there are three things on the mind of every backstroke swimmer:

  1. Swimming fast

  2. Swimming straight (i.e. not hitting the lane ropes)

  3. Being aware of when the lane ends (i.e. knowing how many strokes are left and not hitting your head on the edge of the pool)

This is different to forward-facing strokes – freestyle, for instance – where you can eliminate points two and three. You can see where you’re going. You can see where the lane ropes are, and you know when to stop. In forward-facing strokes, your only focus is swimming fast.


The key to backstroke, Ian Thorpe said, motioning his open palms toward me like a coach, is letting the same notion be true. It isn’t easy, he warned, but if you can let go of the fear of hitting your arms on the lane ropes and your head against the edge of the pool, you can focus your mental and physical energy solely into the power of the stroke.


Ian Thorpe sensed my suspicion but assured me that no one else understood this psychology well enough to practise it consciously, and the results spoke for themselves. I nodded in an ‘Okay, I’ll hear you out’ kind of way, and he powered on, almost as if reciting from a textbook.


“An athlete’s psychology during a race has a major influence on their ability to perform optimally. Many, in fact most, athletes are unable to fully eliminate anxiety and distractions from their peripheral stimuli. This manifests as stress in the body, which limits the way our muscles perform, affects our heart rate, our breathing and perspiration, all of which have a major impact on performance. The science is true for sport generally, but to fully benefit from it, you also have to be able to identify the specific mental barriers in each sport in order to overcome them.”


This, Ian Thorpe explained, is a science in the swimming world that only he had been specifically trained in, through underground relationships with leading sport scientists in Finland. Elite athletes across the world, he reiterated, didn’t fully understand the relationship between mind and body, and thus, weren’t performing to the best of their potential.


Things had started to sound a bit salesy at this point, but I figured this was probably because he felt like he’d been harbouring this secret psychological breakthrough all these years, and was relieved to finally share it with someone now that he’d retired. Even though I’d blackmailed him into telling me, I could feel the weight lifting from his enormous, muscular shoulders.


Ian Thorpe’s career had been hallmarked by his freestyle performance, but by applying this theory, he had been able to outperform many athletes in backstroke and in the medley (which starts with backstroke) with less intense physical training. It meant his mind and body were clear and well rested when it came time to race.


I thanked Ian Thorpe, deleted the photo, and went back to class.


***


Despite my suspicions, the theory worked. Two weeks later at the Swimming Carnival, I came second in the 50m backstroke, and fourth in the 100m backstroke. I’d had no formal training whatsoever, and I’d finished both races ahead of boys who had swimming coaches and substantial facial hair.


The 100m race didn’t go as well because I didn’t know how to tumble-turn, but it was still a respectable result. The thrill of getting up on that podium and accepting my second place ribbon was truly something.

After that day, it was decided. Using the secret to backstroke, I dedicated myself to becoming an elite swimmer. I spent the next six years training here and there, but I mostly focussed on sharpening my mind, surrendering fear, and eliminating distractions. Imagine a filmic montage of me reading piles of psychology textbooks in the middle of the night, climbing the ranks at various levels of swim-meets, shaking hands with the country’s leading coaches, and eventually, becoming a version of myself beyond what I would otherwise have been capable of. I still couldn’t tumble-turn very well, but my 50m backstroke was amongst the fastest in the country. I set my sights on the 2012 London Olympics.


***


Then, in 2011, Ian Thorpe announced his surprise comeback to international swimming, targeting qualification for the 2012 London Olympic games.


Like wildfire, the country rallied behind Thorpe’s journey to recapture his Olympic glory. Ticket sales for the upcoming national swimming championships, where qualification would be determined, went through the roof. It would be the most attended championship in over a decade. People on the streets even started talking about the swimming team, which, outside the actual Olympics, was unheard of. Everyone wanted to see Ian Thorpe back in the green and gold.


When the nationals arrived, Ian Thorpe dominated his first event, the heat swim of the 200m freestyle, and earned himself a spot in the semi-finals. In the last 50m of the heat, Thorpe opened up such a resounding lead that he noticeably backed off the pace. The feeling in the arena was that he was leaving something special in the tank for the semi-finals.


Thorpe needed to finish in the top eight to qualify for the final. The cheers around the arena were deafening as the athletes filed onto their starting blocks. News broadcasters fixed their ties, checked their hair, did their voice warm ups. This was the moment. It was time to sink or swim.


The starting buzzer sounded, and the swimmers flew into the water. In a flash, it was over. Thorpe finished 12th.


Straight after the race, an out-of-breath Thorpe spoke to the media. He was disappointed, but he wasn’t giving up yet.


He had one last chance to make the Olympic team: the 50m backstroke.


***


I got on the starting block in the lane next to Ian Thorpe as the announcers introduced the rest of the athletes. The crowd was going wild, but Ian Thorpe looked straight ahead, determined. I leant over to him.


“Hey Thorpedo, remember me?”


He withdrew from his laser focus.


“Excuse me?”


“I’m the little fat kid who you told the secret to backstroke to.”


Ian Thorpe looked me up and down.


Fuck.”


***


Following my strong performance at the Olympics, I was invited back to my school to give a talk to the students. I was not told what the talk should be about, or how long it should go for, which was confusing. I thought about it for a few weeks. Eventually I decided to talk about how there’s more than one way to get what you want in life, and how you shouldn’t be fooled into thinking you have to do things the way everyone has always told you to. I thought it went pretty well.


After my talk, on the way out to my car, I overheard some of my old teachers — the ones who were still refusing to retire — chatting across the carpark as they headed out to lunch. I couldn’t believe my ears. They were still talking about that talk from Ian Thorpe!


“Oh, remember when Ian Thorpe visited?” one of them said wistfully. “What a lovely man he was.”


“Mmm,” the other said, as though he were biting into a warm scone. “Such a lovely man. Such a lovely man. I bet his talk really inspired that young man from today on his journey.”


“Just goes to show what an impact us teachers can have on those impressionable young minds.”


“I wonder what Ian Thorpe is up to now? We should really get him back in to talk to next year’s group.”


“You took the words right out of my mouth,” said the other. “Oh! Do you remember that story he told us about the…”


I’d heard enough. Furious, I got into my car. Hadn’t they heard what I’d said? Maybe I needed to come back on a Tuesday. Everyone knows students aren’t as attentive on Fridays. Or maybe I need to win more medals in 2016. Let the medals do the talking.


I turned on the radio. An ad came on for a documentary about Ian Thorpe’s journey to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics. It was clear to me then: society was backwards. Ian Thorpe would always be one step ahead of me. Only his legacy could outswim him.

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