Next weekend, Ian Thorpe will make his long-awaited comeback at the Singapore stop of the World Cup. The swimming community has awaited this moment since whispers of a Thorpe comeback started popping up in the spring of 2010. Thorpe quickly denied such rumors, but the publicity never went away, and Thorpe stepped up to announce his intentions on February 2, 2011. However, due to FINA rules, Thorpe had to wait nine months before he could race once more, and that waiting period expires this week, just before Thorpe steps up once again. Supposedly focusing on the 100 and 200 free in his comeback, abandoning his former “baby” the 400 free, Thorpe surprised many when he announced his entries for the Singapore meet – the 100 IM and 100 fly!
In his previous incarnation as a mid-distance legend, Thorpe simply dominated freestyle races. This blog won’t list all of medals he’s won; check out his accomplishments on his Wikipedia page. In short, Thorpe burst out onto the international scene at age 15 with his win in the 400 free at the 1998 World Championships, eating away Grant Hackett’s huge lead to record a narrow triumph at the finish. From that point, Thorpe dominated world swimming and remained the undisputed best swimmer in the world for five years. No one dreamed of matching his accomplishments.
When Thorpe swam at the 2003 World Championships in Barcelona, however, he found himself overshadowed. An 18 year old from Baltimore had stolen the limelight, setting world records in each of the individual events he swam. For that meet, Thorpe elected to add the 200 IM to his regular program of events. Weeks before Barcelona, Phelps had lowered an eight year old world record of 1:58.16 to 1:57.94 at the Santa Clara Grand Prix. In the second of two semi-final heats, Phelps swam from lane four and lowered the record again, this time to 1:57.52, while Thorpe swam out in lane eight and snuck into the final as the fifth qualifier. The next day, Phelps stepped up, having just set a new world record in the 100 fly semi-finals, to race Thorpe for the first time head-to-head in a major final.
Saying that Phelps owned this race is an understatement. Thorpe won silver, 3.5 seconds behind, setting an Australian record that would last until the 2009 World Championships, where Leith Brodie destroyed that mark in a polyurethane suit. Thorpe would never swim this race again in a major competition, focusing on the freestyle events at the 2004 Olympics and retiring a couple years later, having never again swum in a major competition. Now, he returns to the World Cup to swim events he has never even swum on the major stage!
When I read about Thorpe’s Singapore surprise, I assumed that he was merely using the two off-events to tune up and get back into racing without much pressure. He would then build off those performances when he swam the same two events at the Beijing stop before adding the 100 free for the final stop in Tokyo, taking baby steps towards his goal of qualifying in the freestyle events, at least in relays, for the London Olympics. However, an article written by Geoff Huegill, he explored for the first time the possibility that Thorpe might be preparing to take the 100 fly seriously. In this article posted by the Herald Sun, Huegill noted that Gennadi Touretski, the man responsible for Alexander Popov and now training Thorpe, has a tendency to train swimmers for fly and shows a bit of anxiety at the prospect of taking on Thorpe in that event at Australia’s Olympic Trials.
Huegill’s words reminded me of Thorpe’s one excursion into the butterfly and IM, his race with Phelps in Barcelona. In that race, he stayed surprisingly close to Phelps on the fly, especially considering that Phelps set world records in both butterfly events at that meet. His backstroke was solid (Thorpe did win silver in the Commonwealth Games in the 100 back in 2002), and breaststroke lost him a lot of ground to the other silver medal contenders, such as Massi Rosolino. A 1:59 is no longer a competitive time on the world stage, but a 100 IM in short course will do a better job hiding his weakness on breaststroke. In the 100 fly, he could challenge Huegill’s times from the World Cup stops last week in Europe, which would legitimately open the door for him in the 100 fly down the line.
My expectations for Thorpe in the 100 fly and 100 IM have risen, and I’m looking forward to seeing how he handles the world stage. His 100 fly could get to the point where he steps up with a legitimate shot at London, and the Australian Olympic Trials would feature three legends in Thorpe, Huegill, and Michael Klim (though by no means do I think Thorpe or Klim will have an easy time getting past Australia’s new generation of flyers). However, if Thorpe falls flat in his 100 fly and 100 IM, fans have nothing to worry; Thorpe came back to race freestyle, and I believe that in freestyle, he will qualify to swim in the London Olympics.