Ian Thorpe's swimming career could be over.
The five-time Olympic champion has scheduled a midday news conference on Tuesday at a downtown Sydney hotel. A few days ago, it was thought the announcement might be Thorpe's withdrawal from the world championships in next March.
But with the championship trials in March in Brisbane are looming and no sign of Thorpe, who has been plagued by illness, injury and a lack of motivation in recent years, officials and teammates fear he is going to quit.
"It will be a huge announcement," an Australian swimming official, speaking on the condition of anonymity so as not to pre-empt the news, told The Associated Press on Monday. He declined to give any more details, but said the announcement would have nothing to do with talk in recent days by Thorpe's coaches about lingering effects of a bout of glandular fever early this year.
"That's all a smoke-screen," the official said. Thorpe exploded onto the swimming scene as a teenager and swam 13 world records between 1999 and 2002, becoming an international star after dominating the pool at the Sydney Olympics. Thorpe and American Michael Phelps are acknowledged as the world stars of swimming.
The 24-year-old Australian won the 200- and 400-meter freestyle events at the Athens Olympics but has not competed in a major meet since.
He planned a major yearlong break after Athens, claiming "mental fatigue" and hoping to stay fresh for major competitions down the road.
He later decided not to compete at last year's world championships in Montreal, and then dropped out of the Commonwealth Games in March due to the glandular fever bout.
That illness and other minor injuries have affected his training in the lead up to the Australian swim trials in Brisbane next month. If he pulls out of the trials, he will not be eligible to compete at the world championships in Melbourne next March. Late on Monday, visitors to Thorpe's Web site, www.ianthorpe.com, found a one-page message: "Thank you for visiting Ian's Web site. This Web site has been temporarily closed. However there will be some exciting news shortly."
It couldn't immediately be determined when the page was posted. On Sunday, Thorpe's American coaching consultant, Los Angeles-based Milt Nelms, said Thorpe had been trying to get himself back into shape for the December trials.
"Ian has had a long road back from illness and he has been diligently applying himself ... to get himself ready to swim at the worlds," Nelms said in Sydney.
"It has been tougher than we thought and we're going to get together and make a decision within the next 48 hours," he said on Sunday.
Thorpe has not broken a world mark since 2002, but his best times were good enough to win gold over 200 and 400 meters at Athens. Thorpe, who spent three months recently in Los Angeles training with Nelms and other coaches, had earlier said he still hopes to compete at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Thorpe's teammate Grant Hackett, the world and Olympic 1,500-meter champion, said on Monday he knew what Thorpe was going through as he attempted to come back from illness and injury. Hackett also had to drop out of this year's Commonwealth Games after shoulder surgery in late 2005.
"In some respects, it was more difficult than I thought," Hackett said of the comeback.
"It was so difficult to go up and down the pool in training with no real light at the end of the tunnel, you wonder what you are doing it for," he told Australian Associated Press. "There are no easy roads.
"You either do the work or you don't. Once you start competing, it makes it easier to realize why you're doing it. Any athlete who has had an extended break has periods where there is a dip in motivation and others where they are highly aroused to compete." Hackett said he would be surprised if Thorpe dropped out. "If there was talk of retiring, and he said it tomorrow, I'd find it hard to comprehend," Hackett said.
"I spoke to him a couple of weeks ago and he sounded very motivated towards Beijing. But he's the only one who can answer those questions. I'm fairly intrigued and interested to see what he's going to announce, just like everybody else."