When he was 18, Australia’s golden giant of swimming, Ian Thorpe, remarked, “I don’t know where the line is in the sand, but when I get there, I hope to jump over it and continue improving all of my career.”
Six years later, Mr. Thorpe has reached a line in the sand, announcing his retirement from competitive swimming last Tuesday after a year plagued by illness, injury and diminished motivation. His many fans, from Australia to Japan and beyond, will be disappointed that the multiple-world-record holder and five-time Olympic champion won’t be taking on the world’s best once again in Beijing in 2008.
But they can rest assured of one thing, which is not true of most departing athletic superstars: Retirement from swimming will not be the line in the sand for the young man popularly known as the Thorpedo. As remarkable and well-rounded a swimmer as he was, he has shown himself to be just as remarkable and well-rounded a human being. As Australian Prime Minister John Howard said last week, Mr. Thorpe is “a good bloke.” He is also an intelligent, thoughtful and articulate “bloke,” who undoubtedly has plenty more career ahead of him far from the bright lights and the lane ropes.
One is put in mind of the example of U.S. speed skater Eric Heiden, also a five-time Olympic gold medalist. After he hung up his skates, Mr. Heiden went on to become a surgeon and professor of orthopedics in California. Asked a few years back what he considered his single greatest achievement to be, he surprised the interviewer by singling out completing his medical studies. “It would be easy to say what I did at the Olympics — speed skating was fun,” he said. “But I didn’t look at it as my life’s work. Medicine is.”
Mr. Thorpe may not become a surgeon — although he once expressed an interest in the field — but it is apparent from his retirement announcement that he already shares something of Mr. Heiden’s sane perspective. “I started to look at myself, not just as a swimmer but as a person,” Mr. Thorpe said. “You can swim lap after lap, staring at a black line, and all of a sudden, you look up and see what’s around.”
It is not the first time he has offered a glimpse of a philosophical mind beneath that familiar swimming cap. Most of his fans have heard him describe the shock he registered after barely escaping death on Sept. 11, 2001 — he was vacationing in New York and about to visit the viewing platform at the top of one of the World Trade Center towers when the planes struck. The experience reordered his priorities, he has said, reminding him how much more there is to life than competitive sports.
Then there was the incident in Sydney in 2004, when he was cut from his best event in the Athens Olympics after jumping the race starter’s gun in qualifying trials. The decision was reversed when a teammate stepped aside, but at the time the Australian swimming community and public was in shock. The word “tragedy” was freely thrown about. But a friend of Mr. Thorpe’s sent him a text message that he later said expressed exactly how he felt about the mishap: “Oops.” Life, in other words, would go on, and it’s best approached with equal parts humor, unflappability and modesty.
On another occasion, Mr. Thorpe was told he hadn’t been assigned the best lane for a particular final. “There is water in every lane,” he reportedly responded, “so it’s OK.” That spirit illuminated his words Tuesday, when he said simply, “I realize that there are things in my life that are more important to me [than swimming], and I have to pursue them now.”
It’s not just the fans who will miss Mr. Thorpe. His fellow swimmers have also expressed regret at his relatively early departure. One of his major rivals, the Netherlands’ Pieter van den Hoogenband, said of the 195-cm Australian, always a charismatic figure in his neck-to-toe black racing suit: “It will feel strange not to swim against him again. I’ll feel like a fish out of water not having this big black fish beside me.” Koji Ueno, director of Japan’s national swim team, concurred. “I didn’t believe it when I heard it,” he said. “That we can’t see him swim anymore is really a shame.”
In saying that, Mr. Ueno certainly speaks for Japan. Mr. Thorpe has been an icon in this country since the 2001 world swimming championships in Fukuoka, when he won an extraordinary six gold medals. But if his prowess in the pool sparked admiration here, it was his genuine interest in Japan that earned him real affection. There are not many foreign athletes who have come here, as Mr. Thorpe did, and made such a creditable effort to learn the language. He will not soon be forgotten by his Japanese fans as he looks for a life beyond the tyrannical “black line.” We wish him the best.
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