Ian Thorpe knew the instant he’d finished his 100-meter freestyle heat that he wouldn’t be competing at the London Olympics. He lingered in the outside lane until the swimmers in the next race had started, staring at his time on the scoreboard before slowly dragging himself out of the pool.
If he was shocked and “gutted” by his failure to reach the 200 freestyle final to start his program, failing to progress from the heats in the 100 on Sunday morning hit harder.
But he was more circumspect this time - the five-time Olympic champion vowed to continue swimming, possibly restoring the 400 freestyle to his program and maybe even having a go at qualifying for the 2016 Olympics. And he said he wasn’t sorry about risking his reputation by making a comeback.
“When I started this I wanted to get back into the pool. I wanted to start racing again, I wanted to be competitive again and I wanted to go to the Olympics,” he said. “I still want to do all of those things.
“I’ve missed out on what was a huge goal for me to accomplish in this short period of time, but still the desire I had pre to this, it’s still there.”
Asked if he would reset his sights on Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the 29-year-old Thorpe laughed, paused for a few moments, then said- “I’m not going to rule anything out at the moment.” He’s planning on being in London for the Olympics because he feels like he’s been part of the build-up process.
The regret was he didn’t give himself enough time to prepare. His famous surge powered by his big frame and his size 17 feet just wasn’t there. He quit in 2006 and didn’t return to competitive swimming until late last year.
“It’s hard coming to this competition and really, you know, failing in what I set out to do,” he said. “I’m disappointed that I really haven’t been able to race in a way that’s reflective of the work that I’ve done and how I’ve trained. I don’t regret giving this a go. Compared to how I’ve raced before, how I’ve competed and the success that I’ve had, this does look like doom ... But I’m glad I was willing to put myself out there to give this a shot.”
The Thorpedo, as he was globally recognized, virtually ruled the pool until he retired, saying then he was tired of the constant training and living in the public eye. He travelled, moved abroad, returned to Australia and studied at university, went through some financial difficulties, then decided last year on a comeback.
“Thorpie has been someone I’ve always admired as a swimmer, so it is upsetting for him and the rest of us do feel his pain,” Magnussen said. “It would have been great to have him there in London, it’s disappointing that he’s not going to be there, but all I can do now is focus on my race.”
Thorpe’s best shot at London was to qualify as a relay swimmer in the 200, so competing in the 100 was always a last-ditch effort. When he quit competitive swimming nearly six years ago, he was the reigning 200 and 400 Olympic champion.
Thorpe’s world records in the 200 and 400 were enduring. The 200 world mark he set at the 2001 world championships in Japan was only broken eight years later by Germany’s Paul Biedermann, who was wearing a fastsuit now banned by world governing body FINA.
It was a similar situation in the 400. The mark of 3-40.08 Thorpe set at the 2002 Commonwealth Games was improved upon by Biedermann seven years later and again at the 2009 worlds in Rome but the German swimmer only improved the record by .01 of a second, sleek full bodysuit and all.
Regardless of his past exploits, and after posting a series of modest times in meets across Asia and Europe, Thorpe admitted before the trials that he was concerned about his limited preparation.
Thorpe won his heat in the 100 Sunday, the ninth of 12, but was very slow to leave the pool after looking at the scoreboard and seeing his time. He seemed to know already that his time wasn’t good enough to advance. The winner of the next heat swam 48.85, and there were 13 swimmers already ahead of him when Magnussen led the last heat into the water.
Thorpe needed to finish first or second in the 100 or 200 to earn individual selection, or place in the top six in either event to be considered as a relay swimmer. He didn’t get close, even though Sunday’s time was better than his previous best since his return of 50.76.
Michael Klim, another veteran coming out of retirement, clocked 49.79 to qualify 11th for the semifinals.
Australian head coach Leigh Nugent said Thorpe showed signs he could again be a force in the sport.
“He’s got it all, it’s there, you just have to train him,” Nugent said. “What he attempted was incredibly difficult and coming here and doing what he’s done is an achievement in itself, but it’s part of a bigger process.”
Thorpe swam an impressive heat time in the 200 but failed to make the final after finishing 12th of the 16 semifinalists.
Thorpe’s return generated enormous exposure for the Australian Olympic trials, with the South Australian Aquatic and Leisure Centre brimming to its 3,000 capacity for the night sessions which Thorpe was expected to compete in.
On Sunday morning, the venue announcer had to ask the crowd for silence at the start of Thorpe’s 100. The quiet lasted only until Thorpe hit the water.
Thorpe is still a star in Australia, having won five Olympic gold medals, 11 world championships and setting 13 world records after bursting onto the scene in 1999.
“Getting knocked down from a position of immense success,” Thorpe said, will be the “kick along” that his comeback needs. “I’m pleased that when I’ve raced and I’ve struggled through racing that it’s made me more determined to keep going.”