Ian Thorpe's journey from highs in the pool to depths of despair

Feb 05, 2014, 07:57 IST | AFP

Ian Thorpe's lightning speed in the pool won him fame and glory but the former teenage swim star could not outstrip the "crippling" depression which has stalked him for much of his life

Sydney: Ian Thorpe's lightning speed in the pool won him fame and glory but the former teenage swim star could not outstrip the "crippling" depression which has stalked him for much of his life.

Ian Thorpe after a race during the 2011 FINA World Cup. Pic/Getty Images
Ian Thorpe after a race during the 2011 FINA World Cup. Pic/Getty Images 

The exploits of the precociously talented "Thorpedo" dominated swimming at the turn of the millennium, as Thorpe headlined his home Olympics in Sydney and inspired a young Michael Phelps.

Thorpe became Australia's most decorated Olympian with five gold medals at the 2000 Sydney and 2004 Athens Games, and he was the first person to win six gold medals at one world championships in 2001.

In total, aided by his abnormally large feet and hands, Thorpe accrued nine Olympic medals and 11 world titles, and set 13 long-course world records in one of the great swimming careers.

But after his early retirement aged just 24, citing burnout, the natural introvert has struggled to carve out a new life, dabbling in jewellery design and television along with a number of university courses.

Following a failed comeback attempt ahead of the 2012 London Olympics, Thorpe revealed a long battle with "crippling depression" which prompted him to drink heavily at times during his career, and even to ponder suicide.

"I even considered specific places or a specific way to kill myself -- but then always baulked, realising how ridiculous it was. Could I have killed myself?" he wrote in his 2012 autobiography, "This is Me: The Autobiography".

Thorpe suffered a further setback when his bid to make the Australian team for this year's Commonwealth Games, and potentially the 2016 Olympics, was derailed by a shoulder injury.

On Tuesday, his manager James Erskine revealed that the 31-year-old had entered rehab for depression after a mixture of painkillers and anti-depressants left him dazed and disoriented at 3:00 am on a Sydney street.

Swimming prodigy
Ian James Thorpe was born in Sydney on October 13, 1982, and outgrew an early chlorine allergy to become the greatest swimmer of his time.

After 1998 he dominated the 400m freestyle, winning the event at every Olympic, World, Commonwealth and Pan Pacific championship until taking a post-2004 break.

Thorpe took three gold medals at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, winning the 200m freestyle by three body-lengths in a world record and anchoring Australia's 4x100m freestyle relay victory, an event in which the United States had never been beaten.

The next year, Thorpe had a chilling brush with death when he was on his way to the observation deck at New York's World Trade Center on the morning of the 9/11 attacks. He turned back because he had forgotten his camera.

He won three golds at the 2003 Barcelona world championships, but fell off his starting block at the 400m freestyle Olympic trials, ruling him out of the event for the 2004 Athens Games.

But his close friend Craig Stevens, who finished second in the 400m trials, then stepped aside to make it possible for Thorpe to successfully defend his Olympic 400m crown in Athens later that year.

In the "race of the century" Thorpe overhauled Dutch star Pieter van den Hoogenband to win the 200m gold in a new Olympic record.

But the rigours of competition were taking their toll and after Athens, Thorpe took 17 months off, skipping the 2005 world championships, before glandular fever kept him out of the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games.

Sensational exit
Despite reports that Thorpe was struggling for motivation, his retirement on November 21, 2006 caused a sensation as swimming's biggest star quit at the height of his career. Thorpe later explained how his success had made him feel like a "performing seal" and left him longing to reclaim his life.

"I realised how much enjoyment everyone else got out of my swimming: friends, family, coaches, the public - Australians go nuts when you win gold medals," he told the Sydney Morning Herald in
2012. "It made people happy, but it made me miserable."

Thorpe launched an attempted comeback in early 2011, more than four years after his retirement, but he was well off the pace in Australia's selection trials the following year.

His current problems come after injury curtailed another bid to return to competition. The Australian newspaper said he is in financial difficulties, without giving details. Thorpe has also dismissed speculation about his sexuality. "For the record, I am not gay," he wrote in his autobiography.

Go to top