Firing The Thorpedo

It will all be over in eight minutes--give or take a few hundredths--spread over the first four nights of the Olympics. That's how long Ian Thorpe will spend swimming the finals of his four events--a nine-foot-long blur of arms, legs and foam, wrapped in his sinister full-length black bodysuit. And when it's all over, if Thorpe lives up to expectations, the gangly 17-year-old from a suburb of Sydney will have enough fame to last him the rest of his life--at least in Australia, a country where cabdrivers have favorite swimmers and know their times by heart.

Swimming is Australia's national sport, behind cricket, or possibly ahead of it--and it will be in the pool that this Olympics, only the second ever to be held in Australia, will be judged a success or failure by 19 million Australians. Although the team boasts a handful of gold-medal favorites, nobody is more important to the outcome than Thorpe, who in the last few years has repeatedly broken the world records in the 200- and 400-meter freestyle. Anything less than a gold medal for Thorpe in those two events will be tantamount to a national tragedy. He will also swim in the 4 x 200 freestyle relay, which Australia is expected to win, and he's on the 4 x 100 team, which has at least a chance of upsetting the Americans, who have never lost this event in any Olympics. "I go to bed at night and say my prayers and thank God that we have got him," says Australian head coach Don Talbot. "He could be the greatest swimmer we've ever had, and maybe the greatest swimmer the world has seen."

A few weeks ago, though, he was just a big, hungry boy at the end of a five-hour picture session at Sydney's Olympic pool for the benefit of his various sponsors. "I think I'm very fortunate," he said, reaching for an eight-inch-high pile of bruschetta that he would reduce to crumbs in the course of a 60-minute interview, "in that I've been given a gift, and that I've realized what it is and I'm able to work on that." In part, his gift consists of simple size. He lacks the classic swimmer's physique, wide shoulders tapering to a narrow torso; he's bulky in the chest and thighs, relatively heavy at 215 pounds and deceptively soft-looking. But he is tall, almost 6 feet 5, with the advantage of a huge, yardage-eating stroke and flipper-size feet that take a size-17 shoe. Exceptional coordination isn't among his talents--he took up swimming at the age of 8 after proving inept at cricket. But he trains hard and has an extraordinary capacity for aerobic exertion. "The Thorpedo" earned his nickname as a middle-distance swimmer who shoots across the pool with a six-beat kick (six kicks to every arm stroke) that used to be regarded as too energy-intensive for all but sprinters.

Thorpe's shoe size has been the object of suspicion by jealous rivals, who hint that feet grow that big only when stimulated by human growth hormone, a banned but essentially undetectable performance-enhancing drug. His times are so extraordinary--he broke the world record for the 400 meters by almost two seconds--that the word "superhuman" comes to mind, and these days that's not necessarily a compliment. "He is a world apart, like the sun and the moon," German coach Manfred Thiesmann said last February. "A lot of people suspect that he dopes." Thorpe fervently denies it. "I know I have never taken anything, and I know I never will," he says--but to be on the safe side, he refuses to eat or drink anything given to him by a stranger, out of fear that someone might spike his Coke with something that would show up in a urine test.

He is already a national hero, his face in ads for breakfast cereal, Omega watches, Adidas sportswear and Armani--a company he endorses with special enthusiasm. Most Australian athletes make their public appearances in track-suits or bush jackets, but at a recent press conference Thorpe showed up in a soft black leather jacket, three-quarter-length clam diggers and backless black leather sandals. He is famously modest and well behaved, especially for an athlete from a country that has made a national virtue out of what is politely called "brashness"--he claims, in fact, not even to keep track of how many world records he holds. Staring at the bottom of a pool for six hours a day can be a mind-numbing experience, but Thorpe prefers to regard it as an opportunity for reflection, "time to think about every stupid and irrelevant thing that I do, and about important issues as well." His $15,000 prize for breaking the world 400-meter-freestyle record in the Pan-Pacific championships last year was donated to charities, a gesture that undoubtedly helped him win the designation of "Young Australian of the Year."

And he could well be the Young Australian of many years to come--at least through the 2008 Olympics, according to his personal coach, Doug Frost. Thorpe currently competes only in freestyle, but Frost thinks he could eventually add at least one more stroke to his Olympic repertoire, which would set him up to challenge one of the most sacred records in all sports, Mark Spitz's seven gold medals in 1972.

Spitz, who swam both freestyle and butterfly, is one of Thorpe's heroes, and, characteristically, he says of Spitz's achievements, "I don't think they'll ever be beaten." For now, though, he's concentrating on those first four nights in his hometown, in the pool where he has already broken 10 world records and where he will be carrying the hopes of an entire nation. Yes, he does feel the pressure of those great expectations. But he feels it, he says, not as "weighing me down, but as a weight pushing behind me."