Sunday, September 17, 2000

Thorpe as good as advertised

        SYDNEY — It was an epic race in an epic evening, the sort of occasion that makes you remember why we love our games so much. In the center of it all was a 17-year-old kid who once was allergic to chlorine.

        Ian Thorpe is so famous in Australia, he was doing car commercials before he could drive. And that was before Saturday night.

        He could feel the win before he felt the wall. This was the men's 4-by-100-meter freestyle relay, an event the United States had never lost, had never so much as tasted silver, and Ian Thorpe knew the streak was about to end.

        He was swimming the anchor leg for the Aussies, the last 100 meters, against the best American sprinter, Gary Hall. After 50
meters, Hall was ahead by the length of a hand. After 75 meters, the same. Then Thorpe closed on Hall.

        He didn't have enough meters to pull it out. Did he?
        The Aussie crowd of 17,500 was blowing the lid off the Aquatics Center. Swimming is not a two-weeks-every-four-years escape in Australia. It is football. It is baseball. It matters, even when it's not on TV.

        An hour earlier, Thorpe had won individual gold in the 400 meters, a first act that sent the locals into spasms of joy that hadn't subsided by the time the relay began.

        Maybe one gold was enough. One magic act.

        But Thorpe was closing on Hall.

        “I swam as fast as I could as long as I could,” he said. “When I touched the wall, I knew.”

        Thorpe caught Hall with 10 meters to go. He passed him with his last stroke. Thorpe beat America's best sprinter, in America's best event. The building swayed from the roars.

        Even Hall conceded, “I've been in some great races, and I consider this to be the best.” The Americans set a world record, and lost.

        At the center of it all was a 17-year-old who swims like a bird in flight. Thorpe said he hadn't felt the “Olympic buzz” until he walked onto the pool deck for the 400-meter individual finals. Then it hit him, “Just as though the gladiators had walked into the cold sand.”

        In the hour between races, he accepted a gold medal, tried to cool down and relax and needed the help of four people to put back on the Fastskin bodysuit he wore while swimming. Then he swam his way into legend, for the second time in a night.

        “I doff my swim cap to the great Ian Thorpe,” Hall said.

        Thorpe is what you'd expect for 17, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound kid still trying to grow into himself. He didn't express a 17-year-old's sense of what he'd just done, though. He runs deeper than that, already.

        “To be able to dream, and to fulfill those dreams, is the greatest achievement we all can do,” Thorpe decided. Someone asked him if it were the best day of his life.
        “The best day,” Thorpe said. “The best hours. The best minutes. I'm jumping for joy.”

        Aren't we all, if only for a moment. Jumping for Thorpe, who is 17 going on immortality. For the Games, whose ideal he upheld. For ourselves, too. We feel a little better for having watched him.

        After 30 minutes of questions, Thorpe admitted, “Now I have to go back and try to sleep tonight. Which I don't think is going to happen.”

        Sweet dreams, champ. Eventually.

        Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at (513) 768-8454.


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