Fates, feats joined in pool

Swimming: The recognition factor is different, but the similarities between Ian Thorpe and Michael Phelps border on the uncanny.


December 23, 2003|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

SYDNEY, Australia - Three months past his 15th birthday, Ian Thorpe became the youngest male ever to claim a world championship in swimming.

At 15 years and 9 months, Michael Phelps became the youngest ever to set a world record in the sport.

The Phelps milestone came in 2001, when Thorpe became the first man in 16 years to win three individual events at one world championship meet.

Last summer, Phelps joined that select company.

The hometown hero in 2000, the Australian is the one swimmer who comprehends the power of the microscope that the Baltimorean could be under at the 2004 Olympics.

The two are inexorably linked, despite being separated by three years in age, 14 time zones and the fact that Thorpe enjoys a radically different status here.

The planet's smallest continent is also its largest island. Crocodile Dundee introduced America to the outback, but 90 percent of Australians live within six miles of surf, and parents who don't teach their children to swim are considered negligent.

Out of necessity, the population seems obsessed with water sports.

You can count the number of Olympic-sized pools in the Baltimore area on one hand. Contrast that with Sydney, where it's estimated there are more than 300. Take the ferry to Manly and read the text on the monument to surfer Bob Pike, "the first and greatest of Australia's big-wave riders." A T-shirt reads, "Australian Surf-Rowers League."

School is out, and hundreds are taking lessons on surfboards and kayaks or in scuba gear.

On the south side of the entrance to Port Jackson - the self-proclaimed finest harbor in the world - lies Bondi and its more famous beach. You can the join the Bondi Icebergs and swim in a pool of sea water separated from crashing waves by a concrete wall, or breakfast at Speedo's Cafe, maybe the only restaurant on Earth devoted to a swimsuit.

While Phelps' television profile has been low thus far, commercials here feature Olympic 1,500-meter freestyle champion Grant Hackett hawking granola bars. Sit-com stars aren't on the cover of women's magazines; instead, you get family photos of Dawn Fraser or Susie O'Neill, past Olympic champs.

On the celebrity front, all pale in comparison to Thorpe. The 21-year-old has a ways to go to become his nation's most decorated Olympic swimmer, but he has long been its most famous.

Readers of the Sydney Sun-Herald voted on their preferred Christmas dinner guest. Russell Crowe finished fourth. Nicole Kidman was No. 3. Runner-up was Prime Minister John Howard. No. 1 was Thorpe, Sydney's favorite son, the big blond who mixes menace and glamour on the starting block, where an all-black bodysuit designed by Adidas announces the fastest middle distance freestyler ever.

Familiar for his size-17 feet and charity work, Thorpe has been a source of pride since 1998, when he earned his first world title, in the 400 freestyle. That created more than two years of Olympic hype and expectation, which in the end were not fulfilled.

The previous Summer Olympics were held here, in Thorpe's hometown, and you couldn't go two blocks in 2000 without seeing his image. His "IT" underwear line wasn't out back then, but Thorpe already knew the ABCs of the endorsement business. He had contracts with an airline, a bank and a cereal, not to mention a telecommunications giant.

Hot from start

Swimming took center stage the first evening after Sydney's opening ceremony, when 18,000 crammed into the International Aquatics Center. Still just 17, Thorpe won the 400 free and lowered his own world record.

Less than an hour later, he anchored Australia in the 400 freestyle relay, in which the previous seven gold medals had gone to the United States. When Thorpe out-dueled Gary Hall Jr., chests puffed out even more than normal.

Swimming, mind you, does not have a stranglehold on the sporting consciousness here.

The Saturday before Phelps arrived last month for two meets, Australia took England into overtime in the final of rugby's World Cup. A week later, Australia claimed tennis' Davis Cup. The retirement of cricket legend Steve Waugh got more play than Cal Ripken's did in Baltimore.

Jen Adams, the best women's lacrosse player ever, left here and lifted Maryland to four NCAA titles. There is a roster of golfers that includes Greg Norman, and Australian Rules Football siphons off athletic prospects.

But in a nation of 20 million - more than New York state but less than Texas - that relay victory became part of the oral tradition.

"We lionize those people," Don Talbot, the national coach at that giddy moment, said recently of Australia's greats.

Euphoria, however, was followed by a hangover. A Dutchman named Pieter van den Hoogenband upset Thorpe in the 200 free - and stole his world record, to boot.

The calendar can lead to cruel cases of Olympic roulette. Are a coaching change and illness responsible for his performance leveling off this year, or is it possible that he peaked between Sydney and Athens?

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