A heart to match his size 18 feet
SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- Everybody knew about his big feet. What Ian Thorpe proved to the world Saturday was that he had a heart to match.
The last time anybody showed up at the Olympic Games with this much hype to justify, it was Michael Jordan in 1992 with the original Dream Team in tow.
Thorpe has owned every age-group swimming mark worth having since he was 13. All of Australia has been riding his considerable wingspan ever since. And so when he took his mark at the Sydney International Aquatics Center, there was no way to overstate how much was expected from the Olympic debut of this special 17-year-old with the size 18 feet.
"I felt," he would say afterward, "like a gladiator walking into the coliseum."
All Thorpe proceeded to do was jump in the pool, break his own 400-meter freestyle record, climb out long enough to collect one gold medal, then jump back in and anchor the winning leg of what likely will go down as the greatest 400-meter freestyle relay ever.
All in the span of 45 minutes.
"I doff my swimcap to the great Ian Thorpe," American Gary Hall said. "Everybody who had a ticket tonight got their money's worth."
Hall is as brash as he is talented, yet at that moment he was nothing but shocked. He had just battled Thorpe stroke for stroke, breath for breath down the stretch for a U.S. team that broke the world record by more than a second -- and lost.
Hall is a sprinter, a specialist at the 100 meters the last leg requires, and Thorpe is not. With 50 meters to go, he led Thorpe by seven-tenths of a second, a huge gap in the pool, and somehow got passed.
America vs. Australia in the pool was supposed to be the rivalry at the center of these games. A "Thorpedo" may have changed the balance of power for good. Little wonder, then, that the smile on Hall's face was still frozen in place an hour later.
"Dawn Fraser said the race tonight was something the world had never seen before and who am I to argue?" he said. "She's been around a lot longer than I have."
Fraser's blessing might be as important to Thorpe as two more world records since no Aussie is more beloved, even today. Fraser won the first of three swimming golds at the 1956 Melbourne Games, but more important, she inspired the home team to break the U.S. stranglehold on the sport for the first and, so far, only time ever.
What Thorpe accomplished in one grand night, beyond burnishing his own legend, was to reawaken in his countrymen the sense that it could happen again. In their pool. In their land. And in the sport Australians consider their birthright.
"Hopefully, this lifts the spirits of the team. Hopefully, this starts a successful Olympics for us all. Hopefully," Thorpe said, choosing his words carefully, "this is going to have an avalanche effect."
Fully 95 percent of Australians live within 10 miles of the sea. The culture practically resonates to the sound of the surf. When Thorpe swam in the national trials in May, 60 percent of Australia tuned in.
A producer for Seven News, which is broadcasting the Olympics domestically, said he wouldn't be surprised if the number Saturday night swelled to 80 percent. What he didn't say, but could have, is that nearly everybody in that audience would be holding their breath.
For every Dawn Fraser that Australia has produced, there is a Steve Holland. Much like Thorpe, he stormed into the 1976 Olympics with 11 world records under his belt. Unlike Thorpe, he bombed, leaving Montreal with just one bronze. That proved to he his homeland's only swimming medal of any kind.
Thorpe has already delivered better, and more, and the games have just begun. On Monday, he goes after gold in the 200, another event in which Thorpe holds the record. But his worth already extends well beyond whatever he hauls in by himself.
A month ago, Hall had written in his diary for a Web site how much he respected the Australian swimmers. But maybe because the U.S. men had never before lost an Olympic 400-meter freestyle relay, he closed the article with a prediction that Thorpe and his countrymen couldn't forget: "We're going to smash them," Hall wrote, "like guitars."
Thorpe's teammate, Michael Klim, set a world record on the first 100-meter leg of the race Saturday. Seconds after Thorpe held up his end of the bargain by relentlessly hunting down Hall like a shark, Klim spun poolside toward the Americans and began playing an air guitar.
Afterward, someone asked Hall whether the imaginary tune would fracture the psyche of a U.S. team that came to Sydney almost certain it couldn't be beat.
"If I go home and all the guys are lying around in a state of depression," he said, "I'll know the answer."