Thorpie’s back in the pool and back in the race again
So Ian Thorpe is back. In a move that is sure to cheer up the country’s sports fans after some slim pickings of late, Australia’s five-time Olympic gold medallist today announced his intention to compete at the 2012 Olympics in London.
Intriguingly, he says he won’t be contesting the 400 metres race in which he made his name, but will be concentrating on the freestyle legs in the 100 and 200 metre relays.
Thorpe’s comeback has been a long time coming, but in a way it’s little surprise. Indeed, the surprise is almost that it hasn’t come sooner. Thorpe had a mini-retirement after the 2004 Olympics, and his attempted comeback in 2006 was abandoned after illness and injury concerns.
“There’s just been something that’s kinda been nagging,” said Thorpe today. Quite. There was always the feeling he had unfinished business.
In any case, sporting comebacks are hardly rare, nor inexplicable. The strain of training and constantly being in the public eye can be enough to make sports stars withdraw from their chosen vocation. But when someone dedicates so much of their life and energy to one single pursuit, they’re bound to start missing it eventually.
Michael Jordan twice came back in the NBA, with solid results. Lance Armstrong came back from testicular cancer to win seven consecutive Tours de France, then came back again after a brief retirement. Tony Lockett’s attempted comeback, with respect, wasn’t quite as successful as either.
Martina Hingis won the Australian Open, US Open, and Wimbledon at the age of 16 and retired by 22, before her comeback three years later was evaporated through a rolled up 20-dollar note.
Kim Clijsters retired at 24 and had a baby, but the lure of the comeback trail saw her win this year’s Australian Open. In swimming, Libby Trickett and Geoff Huegill are two others to recently make comebacks for the green and gold.
Swimmers, more than many athletes, have to put in a lot of their work from an early age. It’s no rare sight to see swimmers of 15 or 16 representing their countries, winning medals, and even breaking world records.
That, of course, means that they’ve been in serious training from at least the very beginning of their teens. Only in sports like gymnastics do athletes have to do such hard yards from such a young age.
Some, of course, don’t have what it takes in their youth. The lure of glory keeps these swimmers in the pool, striving, into their late 20s and beyond. Occasionally we see an older swimmer have a breakthrough tournament. More often we don’t.
But for those like Thorpe and Hingis, who sweep all before them even before they’re allowed to order a beer, it’s easy to see how motivation would drop away. What else is left to achieve? Why sign up to another four years of hard toil? Once you’ve finished Lord of the Rings, you don’t feel that inclined to go back to the first page.
Hence the retirements, and the joy of not having to train and face cameras every day. But then, with a little more age comes perspective. Thorpe’s interim has probably been a lot of fun, but by now the thrill of freedom may have been Prozacked into something more mundane.
And of course, the competitive will that makes a champion is still there, even if it has been distracted for a while by fashion shoots or submerged in good champagne. “My drive is for performance, and that’s it.,” said Thorpe today, when asked what has motivated his decision. It was ever thus.
Considering the intense lengths of preparation to which he went in his youthful days of dominance, a comeback tilt 18 months out from the ultimate aim could be leaving his run a bit late. It’s more than a little nerve-wracking: the man himself conceded that he was risking what he called “a perfect career.”
But Thorpe, for all his lack of tough-guy blokey persona, is an extraordinarily focused and dogged individual. His determination is what drove him through all those lonely teenage years of following the black line, to the summit of world sport where we first encountered him.
While many may fear that the result will be more Lockett than Armstrong, we should back Thorpe in.
If anyone can make it, he’s the man to do it.
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