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‘I can’t feel the water on my fingers anymore’

by ZwemZa on March 24th, 2018
Ian Thorpe: ‘Everyone has their own time in coming out’ (The Australian)

Ian Thorpe: ‘Everyone has their own time in coming out’ (The Australian)

The Caringbah Olympic pool in Sydney’s south is an unlikely setting for a giant media free-for-all.

In an era when most pools in Australian suburbia have graduated to slick indoor “aquatic centres”, it stubbornly maintains the air of a sleepy time capsule from the 1950s: an outdoor 50m pool, a kiosk and a grassy hill on the side for a spot of sunbaking.

On any given day, you’d be lucky to get a handful of people through the turnstiles. But on the morning of November 20, 2006, it is a very different story.

After a long stint away from the prying eyes of the Australian media, including a much-publicised training stint in Los Angeles, Ian Thorpe is preparing to return to Australia-based training for a possible tilt at the 2007 World Swimming Championships in Melbourne.

Thorpe thinks the pool is his little secret but is blindsided by what he encounters.

“I was ready to go, and there was this crowd of media and paparazzi at the pool. I love training, but I need privacy around it,” he tells The Weekend Australian more than a decade later, during an unusually candid and in-depth series of interviews.

The chaotic media scene drives Thorpe over the edge: “I said to myself, ‘That’s the final straw. If you’re not prepared to give me that, it’s over.’ ”

The next day, Thorpe shocks the nation by announcing that not only will he not swim at the world championships, he will not swim again at all.

It is part of an accumulation of years of struggling to cope with the unceasing scrutiny of his public and private life that is the catalyst for Thorpe: “There was a level of intrusion that I don’t think anyone could have prepared for. I didn’t know people would climb up trees to get a photo of me. I didn’t think people would follow me in a car to training.”

In his retirement briefing he reveals he has turned to a mystery woman who has been “incredible” in helping him make his decision to quit. She is later revealed as Deidre ­Anderson, the high-profile sports ­administrator from Sydney’s Macquarie University.

Anderson had been introduced to Thorpe by another Australian swimming legend, Shane Gould, while he was still in LA and Anderson was in Sydney. Thorpe and Anderson conduct urgent counselling sessions through long-distance calls as he mulls his future.

In one private counselling session leading up to his retirement announcement, Thorpe makes a stunning revelation to Anderson: “I can’t feel the water on my fingers any more.”

She replies with a question: “Do you want to keep swimming, or do you want to get on with the rest of your life?”

Ian Thorpe at the Athens Olympics 2004.

Ian Thorpe at the Athens Olympics 2004.

More than 11 years on, Thorpe, now 35, believes that with the helicopter view of hindsight on his ­career, he has finally gained an understanding of why his time in the pool came to such an abrupt end.

As the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games loom, he also thinks he has the answer to why many other elite athletes in Australia are not achieving their ­potential.

He is proposing a breakthrough elite mentoring program under the auspices of the Australian Sports Commission, using a community of Australian sport’s biggest names — Tim Cahill, Cathy Freeman, Pat Rafter, Lleyton Hewitt, Steve Smith and himself, for example — as a community of mentors across all sports to help high-performing athletes.

Thorpe wants no elite Australian athlete to feel the same isolation and helplessness he felt when he ended his career: “The whole external infrastructure is there, from psychologists to physiotherapists to physiologists, dietitians and the latest technology and data collection on performance. But for some of our top athletes, the inside game is under-utilised.”

With respect to that “inside game”, Thorpe believes that many athletes are underprepared for everything from the pressure of favouritism to the massive media scrutiny around their performance in big events.

His comments come at a time of much soul-searching about the trajectory of our swimming team’s performances since the Thorpe-led golden era of Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004.

At the past two Olympics, in London and Rio combined, Australian swimmers collected only four gold medals, including just two individual golds, both in Rio: Kyle Chalmers and Mack Horton.

Australia’s total haul of three gold medals in the pool in Rio was a big disappointment back home, after international media had predicted a record 11 golds.

Cate Campbell was the highest-profile victim, describing her performance in the Rio freestyle sprints as “the greatest choke in Olympic history”.

Thorpe believes international predictions were ­always overly optimistic, saying he had himself predicted just four gold medals, “or six on the high side”.

But he also notes that without proper preparation, the pressure of favouritism can have a devastating effect on performance.

Thorpe after false start in the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2004.

Thorpe after false start in the Olympic Games Trials in Sydney in 2004.

Thorpe says the Australian system is missing a trick by failing to use our biggest sporting identities to deliver one-on-one mentoring to emerging champions.

Once again, he has turned to Anderson as his key ally in a pivotal moment. He believes she should play a leadership role in helping to establish his proposed mentoring program, because of her prominent role in helping high-profile athletes in difficult times, including, among others, himself, Freeman and Melinda Gainsford-Taylor.

Thorpe and Anderson — along with her business partner, Geoff Huegill’s former manager Keith Saggers — are in parallel trying to revolutionise Australian thinking on how to improve the mental game, both for athletes and beyond to areas like the boardroom.

Thorpe’s venture in conjunction with another elite ex-sportsman, Shane Watson, is called Beon and Anderson’s will be known as the Performance and Transition Institute.

Anderson believes new thinking is long overdue: “Coaches need coaching on how to mentor athletes. And it is athletes like Ian, who have been through the furnace of elite performance and everything that goes with that, who could be the X-factor in ­mentoring to meet gold-medal ­aspirations.”

Thorpe believes a new era is emerging when sports around the globe need to raise the bar on the duty of care they provide to ­athletes.

Endemic issues are emerging that show athletes are not coping with the pressures of professional sport: with mental health issues, disabling behaviours and a lack of coping capabilities.

All can lead to athletic under­achievement and problems ­out­side of sport: “Sports adminis­trators and funding bodies want elite athletes to deliver world-beating performances, but their support for athletes has not kept pace with the demands they are making. This is creating a sense of unprecedented pressure and isolation for athletes, and the results are there for all to see. There is the need for a total mindset change.”

Thorpe has rich reference material: his own career. He believes the daunting moments and crisis points he faced give him a unique perspective into what current athletes in Australia are missing.Thorpe during a press conference to announce his retirement from professional swimming on November 21, 2006.

Thorpe during a press conference to announce his retirement from professional swimming on November 21, 2006.

Thorpe has long had a reputation for being protective of his innermost feelings, but it is clear he is passionate about this issue.

He calls frequently over several weeks at random moments. Each call starts cautiously but once on the phone, his guard comes down, and some calls last for hours.

The lessons in coping for Thorpe began with his standout performances at the World Swimming Championships in Perth in 1998, where he won the 400m freestyle. Suddenly, the world spotlight fell on him, making him an overnight 15-year-old international sensation.

But at an overflowing press conference afterwards, he encountered his first true moment of anxiety as the scale of what he was about to face dawned on him. “I felt like I was out of place. I was overwhelmed by not knowing how I was going to manage this.

“Suddenly, people who I had never met wrote articles about me. It was a part of my life that I didn’t fully understand.”

As he looked on, Thorpe’s ­father Ken made a comment that has stuck with the five-time Olympic gold medallist: “I think I’ve just lost my son to the world.”

Two years later, Thorpe’s exploits on the first night of the 2000 Sydney Olympics were legendary. He won Australia’s first gold medal of the country’s home games in the 400m freestyle in world record time, and two golds in total on the first night of competition alone.

Less known was that for Thorpe, the rest of the Games was much tougher. Two days after his heroic first night exploits at the Olympics, on the day of the 200m freestyle which Thorpe was universally expected to win, he broke one of his cardinal rules: not to look at any media that could distract him during the Games.

“I had one moment that day where I walked past a newspaper on a table. It was opened on a page where the headline just had the time my race (the 200m) was on.”

By the time he got on the team bus to prepare for that final, a couple of teammates noticed a strange phenomenon: an out-of-sorts Thorpe. “(They) said I didn’t look myself.”

In the gold medal match race against Dutch superstar Pieter van den Hoogenband, Thorpe the swimming machine is absent.

“I remember pushing off the wall at the 150m turn — which is normally my time to go — and having nothing,” he remembers.

Both the Olympic title and his 200m world record were lost.

Rather than dwelling on the loss of both the race and his world record at the time (he regained it six months later), it instead ­becomes a defining moment: “From that day on, my mentality was: ‘I have to make sure I will be better than any of my competitors on my worst day, than their best day’,” he said.

As if he was not under enough pressure, another issue of Thorpe’s life outside of swimming, his sexuality, posed its own challenges.

These days, Thorpe is proudly and publicly gay, happily in a long-term relationship with Perth-born model Ryan Channing.

He was a high-profile advocate throughout the marriage equality campaign. On the day Australian voters resoundingly voted in favour of same-sex marriage, he gave a speech emotionally thanking them for creating a “better Australia”.

But it was a different matter for an awkward 16-year-old in the public eye, still coming to terms with his identity, being asked for the first time about his sexuality.Thorpe leaves a packed press conference in Melbourne after revelations over a sample with abnormally high testosterone levels and luteinising hormone (LH) taken in May 2006 before his retirement. It plunged Thorpe into the deepest crisis of his life.

Thorpe leaves a packed press conference in Melbourne after revelations over a sample with abnormally high testosterone levels and luteinising hormone (LH) taken in May 2006 before his retirement. It plunged Thorpe into the deepest crisis of his life.

He remembers being confronted about it by a reporter in a ­carpark, but was not ready to come out: “It was too early for me. ­Everyone has their own time in coming out.”

But being asked whether he was gay at 16 created a stigma in his own mind.

“Because they were asking the questions, along with the rumours and the innuendo that I ended up hearing, I always thought of being gay as a negative thing. I wasn’t comfortable in myself to come out. I wanted people to be talking to me about what I was doing in sport.”

Asked about how he now views his sexuality compared with when he was a teenager, Thorpe says: “I now have an opportunity to live my life with an authenticity that is true to my character. (Back then) I was a teenager. No teenager is ever comfortable in their own skin.”

Over the next four years, the only man who became a threat to his dominance was Thorpe himself.

It all began at the Australian trials for the Athens Olympics in March 2004 in his pet event, the 400m freestyle, when he overbalanced on the blocks and fell into the pool before the starter’s gun had gone off.

He was immediately disqualified. What followed was a month-long circus that arguably sowed the seeds of his 2006 retirement.

The media speculation was all about the man who took his place, Craig Stevens, and whether he would pull out and allow Thorpe to race.

The pressure on both men was unprecedented.

Thorpe felt totally isolated: “People were so incredibly critical. I started preparing assuming I would not swim that event at the Olympics, so I was training only for the 100m and 200m.”

A month after Thorpe fell in the pool, Stevens announced in a paid interview he was stepping down.

But the pressure remained on Thorpe: “I felt horrible. I now didn’t have a choice. I had to win, because someone gave up their spot for me.”

Two weeks before the Olympics, he had a meltdown. “I said to my coach, I can’t do this (the Olympics).” His then coach, Tracey Menzies, told him to take time out. “She said to me: ‘You’ve done more training than anyone else.’ That got me back into the frame of mind that I could ­compete.”

As he dived into the pool in the 400m in Athens, a million thoughts went through his head.

“I had a responsibility to Craig. I thought of what he sacrificed for me, and also what it meant to the country for me to win.”

An exhausted Thorpe pipped Grant Hackett to the line, but his time was way below his expectations: three seconds outside his own world record.

“At the end of the race, I was exhausted,” he says.

“It wasn’t physically; it was emotionally.

“I went out the back of the centre, where no one could see, and I collapsed.

I said to Tracey: ‘I am never f..king doing this race ever again.’ And Tracey replied: ‘You never have to do that race again.’ ”

At this point, an exhausted Thorpe took a year-long break.

Leading into 2006, he started a comeback in time for the Melbourne Commonwealth Games. But a series of setbacks, including glandular fever and a broken hand, put paid to that, and he made the choice to move to the US to escape the incessant scrutiny of the Australian media.

He eventually returned from LA late in 2006 for one final bid to swim at the 2007 world championships in Melbourne. But the ­renewed media onslaught that ­followed his return triggered his momentous decision to retire after that fateful November day in ­Caringbah.

There was one further bolt from the blue early in 2007, as he battled to carve out a future beyond swimming, which was a stake to his heart.

The French sports newspaper L’Equipe published drug tests from Thorpe which alleged he had elevated levels of two hormones.

Thorpe after winning gold in Sydney 2000.

Thorpe after winning gold in Sydney 2000.

While the story was quickly condemned by the World Anti-Doping Authority and he was ultimately exonerated, it plunged Thorpe into perhaps the deepest crisis of his life.

“At that point, I felt my life had come undone, as a clean athlete who has fought for this, who had competed with athletes who were doping, and won,’’ he says.

“It was probably the worst period of my life. Everything was happening at the same time: I was making my transition to normal life, but I had spent most of my life achieving these results, and now they’d come into question. It was not right. As a clean athlete, this was the most insulting thing that could ever happen.”

With his entire legacy under siege, Thorpe says he was suicidal at times during this dark period.

“I didn’t know what to do with my life. I was so down and depressed, I barely left the house.”

Looking back now on the lead-up to his retirement and the terrible lows he hit in the period that followed, Thorpe wishes he had been given access to people who had also reached the heights of sport at the time.

He felt he needed a dialogue with someone who understood the highwire act of reaching the top of their chosen sports.

Conversations with fellow swimming legends such as Murray Rose and Dawn Fraser were valuable but only fleeting, and Thorpe admits to experiencing isolation and loss.

One person who related to his battles was fellow swimming legend Shane Gould, with whom he spent time when he escaped to LA in 2006.

Like Thorpe, she hit the global limelight young — at 15 in the Munich Olympics — and, more than anyone, shared common ground.

“He’s been hounded by the media and by his own demons about what’s his role and purpose in life, and where swimming fits,” she has said. “It’s hell, but it doesn’t just happen in sport. It can happen when you’re tormented by … a bad job or a rank marriage.”

Today, Thorpe wants to pay Gould’s advice forward. He believes he has finally found his true vocation: setting up a national community of elite athletes as mentors. This would allow him to pass on his experiences and skills so others could reap the benefits and avoid the pitfalls he ­encountered.

His sporting insights have ­already given him other strings to his bow. He is now carving out a career in TV commentary, having established himself as an international sports anchor on major events for the BBC, Star Sports in India and the Seven Network in Australia, where Thorpe will cover the Commonwealth Games.

He rates his breakthrough role co-anchoring the BBC’s coverage of the 2012 London Olympics as a career highlight.

“Being able to explain technical swimming concepts in basic terms to the middle 80 per cent of viewers: that’s where you should aim contact as a commentator.”

His best known moment of commentary in London was his dissection of why Australian gold medal favourite James Magnussen was beaten by 1/100th of a second in the 100m freestyle final.

“I said he lost the race with a bad touch. I explained there was a way of learning when you touch the wall to crumple your fingers and you’ll win the race.”

But it is the desire to leave a lasting legacy with an elite men­toring program that now excites him the most.

Thorpe sees this as potentially his greatest future contribution to Australian sport: “I would now like to be the person that I wished I’d had during my career.”

Nick Tabakhoff | The Australian

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