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Interview: Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe on getting back in the pool

Ian Thorpe took a break to work on his autobiography, his hobbies and himself. Picture: Getty

Ian Thorpe took a break to work on his autobiography, his hobbies and himself. Picture: Getty

  • by Lee Randall
 

THEY called him the Thorpedo, this youngster barely old enough to shave, who streamed through the water like a fish strapped to a booster rocket, becoming, at 14, the youngest male swimmer ever to represent Australia and the youngest ever individual male World Champion.

He won nine Olympic medals – five gold – and 11 World Championship golds. He carried home ten Commonwealth Games gold medals, and broke 22 world records. But in 2006, at 24, Ian Thorpe said that’s it, I’m through, and turned his back on swimming.

Four years later, without any fanfare – he told three people: his two business managers and a coach – Thorpe dove back in, very much at the deep end, on his 28th birthday. He says he didn’t do it to accumulate new medals or to relive past triumphs, but “because swimming was an integral part of my life that I felt forced to abandon. Now I want it back.” Nevertheless, his immediate training goal was earning a place on Australia’s 2012 Olympic team. He didn’t qualify, in the end, but the team’s loss was Britain’s gain: Thorpe was snapped up by the BBC for a major presenting role during London 2012, proving himself as graceful on air as he is in the water.

Now he has published his autobiography, This is Me. It dispels a few persistent rumours – he insists he’s not gay – and Thorpe reveals for the first time that he suffers from depression. He also offers fascinating insights about the life of a championship athlete, and beautifully describes the physical sensation of swimming: “When I first dive into the pool I try to work out how the water wants to hold me. If I let it, the water will naturally guide me into a position; a place for my body to settle, resting with my head down, almost meditating. This is the starting point for me, not just floating but lying flat on top of the water.”

We meet at his publisher’s London office. Thorpe is every bit the larger-than-life presence I expected, broad of shoulder and filling the doorway at 6ft 5in. He’s dressed in stylish grey and black, the trousers a complicated – and dare I say it, slightly “Aladdin-esque” – affair, pleated at the waist and pegged at the ankles. His T-shirt is a thing of wonder, constructed of form-fitting microfibre that accentuates his impressive musculature without sacrificing dignity. Presumably it’s all from Thorpe’s favourite designer Giorgio Armani.

There is about him the aura of a man-child. He’s big and buff; his manners are impeccable and his concerns the concerns of a man of the world busy juggling a sporting career along with several businesses (including a sports drink that’s big in Japan), and the care and maintenance of three homes. As we speak, despite initially being guarded to the point of rigidity, I keep catching flashes of little boy. It’s there in his admitted nerdiness, the vulnerability that’s written all over his face. You can see him wanting to do well.

It all makes perfect sense. Thorpe is the first to say that his was a case of arrested development, which is partly what contributed to his decision to hang up his swimming trunks. He writes, and then reiterates the point in person: “I was a young man who hadn’t actually grown up. I was mature, I’d travelled widely and experienced many things, but I hadn’t really found out who I was or even what I liked. What would I be if I didn’t have swimming as the safety blanket it 
had become?”

What, then, did he learn about himself during those “dry” years? “It was realising that I had a capability that was beyond swimming. I really needed to test myself. When I found out that I am capable of other things – and it took a period of time to get there – was the first time it entered my mind that I’m not actually finished with the swimming thing yet. I want it back. In so many ways I was forced, as a young person, into what was a very adult world, and you don’t really explore all of the things that you would with a normal childhood. You might be very mature in front of a camera, but other parts of your life haven’t matured in the same way.”

Thorpe’s analytical mind perceives itself as three distinct entities: his physical self, his media face, and his private self, which he keeps under wraps. “The private me is still delighted by childish pranks, building Lego with my nephew, cooking for friends, gardening and walking my dogs.”

But, he writes, “there are shadows in my life, a clutter of darkness, angst and misgivings which have confused my path… The water gives me respite. It’s one of the few places I can be completely comfortable with myself; a place where I’m truly happy.”

He tells me he wrote the chapter about his depression to get it out of his head, thinking he wouldn’t actually use it in the finished book. “I thought it was important to include it, but I thought it was something that I’d just remove and keep for myself. But I realised that to gloss over a whole section of my life wasn’t being completely honest. I also realised that this chapter’s not just about myself, it’s actually for everyone else, and it forced me to confront how I felt about my depression, as well. It’s the first time in my life where I’m actually comfortable talking about it, so it was a hard chapter to write, but I am very proud that I have included it. And it’s amazing how many people have said to me that they’re struggling with depression … people in the street stop and say thank you for writing about this.”

Throughout his life Thorpe felt different, but he kept all of those feelings concealed from his family. Yet he’s especially close to his mum, so why didn’t he confide in her? Did he see depression as a chink in his armour? “No. I was embarrassed to tell people because I felt like there was something wrong with me. As I learned more about depression, [I now believe that it’s] genetic, and I would have had to deal with it regardless of what I was doing in my life. Then I tried to look at it from a rational point of view: you know, you have a great life, you shouldn’t feel this way – which makes you feel even worse. For people looking in it may be hard for them to understand how someone can seem to have everything but have no enjoyment from it.”

You don’t get to decide whether you’d like to have depression or not, he points out, but you do decide how it will impact upon your life. “You can let it take control of everything you do, or you can take some ownership over it. You still have ups and downs, but you accept that. And you can get on with most of your life. Most days are actually good, then there’s a few periods that you know are not going to be good times. I look at it as an illness, and I get sick, a few times a year. It’s not so different from what other people go through with a physical illness.”

During his darkest hours, he reveals, he would plan how and when to kill himself. He first saw a doctor when he was 19, then went through a phase of binge drinking to combat his emotional ups and downs. Now he takes medication to ameliorate his anxiety. He won’t let depression define him, but he also wants to demonstrate that it’s possible “to manage a serious illness and still achieve great things in life.”

Typically, Thorpe has done his homework, so when I ask about his having said that depression was prevalent among athletes, he warns me that his beliefs are anecdotal, and not backed up by studies. “We may not know that we’re attracted to sport, and we don’t know what it is about sport that has attracted us, but when I look at my sport and others, the number of depressives appears to be higher than it is in the general population. I think we’re already in sport when we find out we have depression, rather than going into sport to combat depression, but it’s a really healthy thing to do. Some would argue that when you get to a really elite level that kind of pressure might contribute to depression. I’m not sure, because when I’m in a high-pressure situation, like competition, I manage my depression really well. It doesn’t even really come into play.”

Regardless of whether you’ve won or lost? He smiles cheekily and noiselessly mouths, “I don’t lose” before saying, “But I think either way it wouldn’t make any difference.”

I wonder aloud whether people who feel their minds are out of control become the supreme masters of their physical selves because that’s something they can control. With an incredulous look, Thorpe dismisses this as nonsense. “Not really! My motivation is to try and find the perfect stroke. I live most of my life being imperfect, and then I have a sensation that feels like perfect – it’s not, but it feels like it, because I’ve never done it before. I put up with doing everything, most of the time, that’s wrong, just for the small glimmers of when it is just right. And that’s my motivation in the pool.”

There’s so much talk about clear water and having one’s own space in the pool – would swimmers prefer to race alone, then have their times compared to determine a winner? Laughing again, Thorpe says, “That would be awful for the TV ratings!” But he is acutely aware of other swimmers, and can hear if their strokes are off. “Every swimmer will speak about being in clear water, which means that people aren’t dragging off you, you can swim your own race. This is how I prefer to swim.”

“During competition you have to go into yourself, but you have to have the same kind of spatial awareness of the crowd, the arena, and how that can pull into your performance. The energy from the crowd or your competitors can contribute in a very positive way to your performance. It can also be detrimental. The best technical swimming will never be done in competition. The evolution of swimming happens in training.”

A gold medal swim, then, isn’t necessarily someone’s best performance, just their fastest? “Sometimes you’ve been very successful and it wasn’t, technically, your best performance. I look back at some of my competitions and there are huge mistakes. You have to be good enough in training so that on a bad day in competition you’re still good enough to be able to perform.”

And as he explains it, training affords him the time he needs for meditative thinking. He thrives on routine, and the things that others might consider dull. “I know my outlook on swimming is very different to other people’s. I am a technician in the pool, whereas other people will just grind themselves through it. And I’ve done that, as well. But I love it when we have long sets in training, when the intensity is at a level where you can just fall into the swimming and keep that repetition. For me this is like music. It’s great to be able to do all of this training.”

It is this desire which may yet see him compete at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow next year.

During the “dry” years, Thorpe was able to explore his creative side. He designed jewellery, and worked on his gardens. He built a table, and wrote Cook For Your Life, filled with recipes and tips for balancing gourmet tendencies with the need to stay fit and healthy. “I like creating things. Cooking and gardening are some of life’s simplest pleasures. No matter how busy your life is, you slow down for these things, and you have enough time to allow your mind to wander.”

He loves cooking for friends and lets their requests dictate the menus. “Three Day Chicken is probably the most requested and one of my favourites, but the thing I enjoy the most is Indian food.

“When I look at my swimming, there’s a creativity [there]. I’m playing around with stroke and how I feel and what I do. And yes, there is a side of me that wants to play out the creative. I have to do it, because it’s part of me.” We’re back to the concept of integration – that here was a young man who focused on one thing only, allowing other aspects of his multi-faceted self to languish, resulting in tremendous unhappiness, and almost certainly exacerbating his depressive tendencies. What we have now is a more balanced Ian Thorpe.

“Too often we focus on the athletic performance, and don’t actually create complete athletes. They don’t have outside interests, so they put their whole sense of worth and value around athletic performance. Maybe in the short term that works, but over a longer period of time it doesn’t. You have to have value in other areas of your life as well. I’m happy with where everything is now. Everything is in place while I’m swimming, and it’s also in place for when I decide to stop swimming again. It is a well-rounded, full picture.

“When I first went away from the sport I didn’t want anything to do with it. I’ve realised that swimming is always going to be a part of my life, and I have a very different feeling toward swimming now. Which is a good thing.”

• This is Me, The Autobiography, is out now from Simon & Schuster, £20, hardback.

 

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