Exclusive Q&A: Ian Thorpe on Sydney 2000, coming out, and who to look out for at Tokyo Olympics
After becoming a world champion at the age of 15, he won the first three of his five Olympic gold medals as a 17-year-old at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
It's 20 years to the day since 'Thorpey' was his nation's Closing Ceremony flag bearer at those Games. To celebrate, Olympic Channel hosted a fascinating Instagram live interview with the pool star.
In a candid chat, sections of which are transcribed below, the 37-year-old reminisces about what went through his mind at Sydney 2000, reveals the struggles he went though on his journey to coming out as gay, why he rates Caeleb Dressel so highly, who his mixed relay dream team would be, and even reveals where his Olympic gold medals are kept!
Spoiler: You'll be lucky to get a look at them!
Olympic Channel (OC): How does it feel to look back at the Sydney 2000 Olympics when you were just 17-years-old?
IT: It's really weird. When I think back, there were all of these doubts about whether or not Sydney or Australia could deliver an Olympic Games on the world scale. And I felt as though Australia in a way grew up and also delivered what was an incredible Olympics, which almost shaped what the Olympics should look like for future countries and future hosts to match up to, if not surpass.
OC: Do you remember the pressure like yesterday or does it actually feel like it was 20 years ago?
IT: No, I still feel the pressure. When I was 15, I became world champion. I never thought before that, that I'd be old enough to actually be at the Sydney Olympics. And then the following year I broke four world records in four days. Then I went into the Olympic Games as the overwhelming favourite, which I never expected. Then going into the final, I had doubts. I didn't have the most comfortable heat swim and it wasn't until I heard the roar of the crowd [at the start]... it was a moment in my mind... it just took me out of thinking about it too much. And I realised I've done all the work. I've done more work than anyone else. I'm ready for this. And I was ready for that moment.
OC: What are your feelings watching back at your victorious 400m freestyle race?
IT: That roar was the biggest roar I've ever heard. I decided I'd go to what was my race plan, which was I'll lead every length of this race. It is complicated in a way because I realised I had another and another race afterwards, which was the 4x100m freestyle relay. So I was told not to enjoy the moment as much as what I probably should have. And for athletes I actually say, you know what, that's wrong. Enjoy it, be inspired by it and let that take you to the next race.
I had a responsibility in the relay and I knew what I had to do that night. Even as a young man I tempered my emotions after winning my first Olympic gold, which was what I wanted to do. That was my dream. And a dream is something that you usually don't say to people because you get a little bit embarrassed about it. Call it a goal, something that's more practical. But I knew that there was another race that Australia needed to win that night. And I was able to manage myself well to be able to do that. And I certainly celebrated it as soon as we won that race as well.
OC: Where do you keep your medals?
IT: They're in a bank vault. I'd love for them to be out there, but most insurance companies don't want to insure them and that's where they remain. I'd prefer if they were out somewhere. When I go to schools and things like that kids get the chance to put it around their neck. It's the best thing in the world and they get to experience the same feeling towards the Olympics I had when I was a young kid. You realise what the Olympics can represent to everyone. It doesn't matter where you are in the world, it's just this is what it represents for all of us.
OC: What's interesting is that you had an ankle injury in the run up to those Olympics, were you fully fit?
IT: Yeah, I broke my ankle October 12th. The only reason I remember the date is it was a day before my birthday. And I was running in a national park. I took an entire step on the side of my ankle and I broke it. I didn't realise at the time. I trained that evening. I took my shoes off and I thought, you know, my ankle is swollen here. So maybe if I just kick a little bit, it will loosen the fluid, and I did that that night. I did it again the following morning and my mom then insisted that I actually had an X-ray. I can remember my mom walking down when I was told to get out of the pool. She had been crying because I think in her eyes I could see my Olympic dream dissipating. It was gone. It was too much. But I didn't respond in the same way as what she had, but she realised what I had been through and what I'd have to go through to be able to get to this point. At that point I did everything I could to actually give myself the best shot to be able to become an Olympic champion, but also to be an athlete that was ready for whatever was presented to them.
OC: One of your American rivals in the 4x100m freestyle relay Gary Hall Junior recently said that he thinks Caeleb Dressel could beat Michael Phelps' record and get nine medals in Tokyo. Do you think Caleb can do it?
IT: I've been criticised before because I said I didn't think Michael Phelps would win eight gold medals. It wasn't that I didn't think that he could. It was that I just didn't think it would happen. So I'm not going to say with Caleb Dressel that I don't think he can. I just I do not think he will. And I'm happy to say that for me, Caleb Dressel is the most dominant male swimmer that I've seen since Michael Phelps. And I have the utmost respect for him. I think he is such an exceptional athlete and so respectful to his rivals. But when I look at him accomplishing nine compared to eight, I don't want eight to ever be a disappointment. The same as for Michael, if it was seven and not eight. That should not be a disappointment because of how much goes into that. Understanding what happens in swimming, I want the athletes to be acknowledged in the way that's worthy. And I don't think it's worthwhile actually comparing different generations to others. I actually don't think that helps in sport because the context is wrong. If Caleb was to actually achieve that at the next Olympics Games it would be mind blowing to me. If he does then hats off to him. The Australian athletes I'm always going for, but he is literally is the best male athlete since Michael Phelps. And that's that's no lie.
OC: Part of the reason he can challenge for nine medals is because there's going to be a new mixed relay event. And to what do you think about the mixed relay?
It's fantastic. So what's happened traditionally, it's very difficult for a country the size of Australia, or let's say New Zealand to go up against a country the size of the USA. So New Zealand, talking about population, how are you ever going to compete against the US in this event? It actually isn't fair in terms of performance, in terms of how many people. But we usually don't use that as an excuse. It's the same in Europe as well. There are some countries that actually have really dominant athletes in individual races, so individual strokes that are good enough. So I look at Sweden, I look at the UK, I look at Germany, where they actually can produce athletes at each individual event that could win a particular race. And I actually think it gives a little bit more fairness to who can and who can't win the races. And that's what I like about this. And I actually think it should stay.
OC: Who would be in your relay dream team?
IT: I'll do an international team. Jason Lezak always in the final leg. I think Michael Phelps still thanks him for his eighth gold medal in Beijing. Lenny Krayzelburg I think is the best backstroker I've seen. Adam Peaty is probably the best breaststroker I've seen. The best fly swimmer... I'll argue with a lot of people on who's the best, but there's an Australian called Andrew Lauterstein became third at the Olympics and I think his 100 metres butterfly is as good as Michael Phelps. Michael Phelps is the best butterfly swimmer in the world, period. But on Andrew Lawson's best day, I actually think he could have won that race.
OC: Which Australian athletes stand out to you ahead of Tokyo 2020?
IT: Kyle Chalmers is the obvious one. He'll be up against Dressel. I actually think this is the race that will actually make the competition. I look at both of them. Everyone asks me who I think will win and I can't say, which I love. This is sport. The other ones are Cate Campbell and her sister Bronte against the rest of the world. The challenge for Cate is going for an Olympic Games where she feels as though she's failed to be able to find something in herself previously. Her sister is also someone that can swim almost as fast as what she can. And so it complicates all of this.
OC: Do you still swim?
IT: I can't. I actually had a shoulder replacement. I can swim well enough to catch some waves and surf, but I can't actually swim. I can do enough to do a couple of laps of the pool, but for enjoyment only.
OC: Andre Agassi famously said that he didn't like tennis, and he only did it because it was his job. Do you feel the same way about swimming?
IT: That's a great question. I'm a very unusual athlete in that I loved the solitude that came with training and perfecting my art more than competing. And most athletes don't feel that way. I was a perfectionist in what I could refine in the skill. And that was what I worked towards. It also meant when I was winning that I could justify doing it. Being the pool was almost like meditation.
I think that we speak about the way that we swim incorrectly. People say that you have to try and pull through the water. I actually think you have to hold the water. And if you can do things in a different way to what other people would have done, you can actually get a lot more out of it. Because at the end of the day, the water is supporting you and your ability to be able to manipulate it is the way that you're actually going to be able to create performance. It's a highly sophisticated way of being able to create performance. We have gravity that comes down and we know this as a fact. So there's a surface layer with in the pool. That is the magic layer that you can work with if you can manipulate your body to put as much of it in there as possible, you're going to swim faster than everyone else. It's what you do on the rotation from side to side. And that's what the best swimmers can do.
OC: Since retiring, you've been quite open about some of the struggles that you endured, and also talking about your your sexuality. Looking back on your life now, what would you tell your 17-year-old self who hadn't come out yet?
IT: There are two completely separate issues and it's important to regonise that. I knew that I was struggling with mental health issues before I knew what my sexuality was. I knew I was struggling. I wish I had more time to accept my sexuality within my career, and I didn't. There's part of me that regrets that, but given the circumstances it was so complicated that I didn't know what to do. I was a teenager the first time I was asked if I was gay, which is not an appropriate question for anyone to ask anyone at that age, if at all.
On top of that, I look at the performance that I had and the profile that I had and it complicates things as well. My goal was to make the Olympic team. My dream was to become Olympic champion. It's that simple. But as I said before, the dream is something you feel a little bit embarrassed about. So I guess there's a little bit of sacrifice in that, that I didn't realise would have an impact on my life.
OC: Do you feel more content now? Within the community of LGBTQ you are an icon.
IT: It's who I am. I struggled coming out, I don't struggle being out. It just took me time and that's all. And that's all it takes for anyone else as well. We don't know the circumstances that someone's been through to actually get there. And I get asked all the time. What's your advice? And I actually don't have all the answers. I don't know. I want to make sure people are OK. But the best example or the best suggestion that I've ever heard was the reason or the best reason that you should come out is that you become the example that makes it easier for someone else to come out.
OC: It's a remarkable story and you're a remarkable human. Do you feel like society has become more mature and more understanding of accepting people for who they are?
IT: Yes, in the most part. And I say that as someone that's worked on social justice issues since I was a teenager. And I say that for the LGBTQ community, we're not there yet but we're far closer. And if you believe in one social justice cause it means that you should believe in each other. We have an issue around race around the world at the moment. And we should acknowledge it and we should acknowledge what we can do better.
I also think that gay people should be supportive of our brothers and sisters that have been discriminated against, whether it's in America, New Zealand, Australia, or if it's in a place where it's still illegal to be gay, or you're discriminated against based on the colour of your skin. We should actually become the biggest advocates for people that actually have to still go through that.
There's a rule at the Olympics, that is rule 50.2. I've had to reflect on it, because I don't know how I feel about it. The rule itself says that we shouldn't make a protest based on religion, race, gender, sexuality, or whatnot. It all falls under this category. ... In Australia, during the Sydney Olympics, North Korea and South Korea didn't walk out as separate countries. They walked out as Korea. Is that a political statement? I don't think it is. But if it is, it means we can go both ways, and this part of the agreement is actually not accurate.
There's rules within the Olympic Committee that I don't necessarily agree with. I wish that we had a voice, that we could actually make sure that the world did not have to reflect on these [issues] at an Olympic Games, but unfortunately we don't. I'd prefer that there is actually the platform for athletes to reflect on these moments, so that it doesn't become about performance. It becomes about what's right, and the way that the Olympic Games brings humanity together, rather than bringing it apart.
OC: The Olympic values are all about respect and friendship and excellence and bringing people together that unity. You wrote about on twitter recently: I think the world may need us. The world would need to have the Olympics. Tell us more about that.
IT: The Olympic Games is a uniting force in the world, and we should aspire to more in the way that we can actually bring the world together. We remember stories, you know, athletes that are not Olympic champions, but the athletes that qualified for the Olympic Games and we love their stories. I know of some junior athletes from that came from Syria, and some that were hidden in the slums of Rio, and they competed at the Olympic Games. These stories make us feel human. And that's also what the Olympics represents.