Ian Thorpe has spent adulthood in the harsh, unforgiving glare of the spotlight that comes with being a superstar athlete.
It is a career trajectory that has made scant sense. At the age of 15, he was a world champion. By 17, he was an Olympic gold medallist, a world record holder, and a legend. By 24, with the world at his feet, he had retired.
“I could have retired later. But my dream was to become an Olympic champion. So when I was 17, I’d done everything I wanted to. At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, I thought for a moment this is enough for me. I went to win many more World Championship medals, broke more world records. I accomplished far more than I intended to or wanted to. I lost my desire and love for the sport,” Thorpe told HT on Thursday.
He made a comeback four years ago just ahead of the London Olympics, however, has no plans to do so this time around.
“I’d love to (return to competitive swimming), but I can’t because I’ve had surgery on my shoulder. There’s no way I can do it. I can’t even lift properly.”
In his short career, the 33-year-old witnessed unprecedented highs in the pool. Yet, outside, it was fraught with depression, struggles with alcoholism and painkillers — all playing out in the public eye. The glare has only grown stronger ever since he announced he was gay in 2014.
“I’ve had some difficult times but it’s only a small part of my life. Most of my life has been fantastic. But when you’re depressed you don’t realise that.
“The most difficult part in having this kind of profile is that you tend to feel that your life is not your own. You can make the mistake when you start to allow other people to define who you are rather than you doing it for yourself. You can become lost in that,” Thorpe said, adding: “But there’s also another side to it, you have the capability to make someone’s day by just being pleasant to them. There’s a responsibility that comes with it and there’s also the difficulty that you cannot live up to expectations.”
It is the weight of expectations and scrutiny that comes with it that Thorpe’s compatriots, tennis players Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios, have found difficult to cope with.
Thorpe admitted that public perception is not high among his priorities.
“The public and fans’ perception of me is not a priority. I’m aware and respectful of that (how he is perceived). I don’t want to disappoint people. But mostly I don’t want to disappoint myself. That’s my motivation, to have high expectations from yourself.”
Where he once walked away from the sport citing lack of desire, he is now working with Swimming Australia to motivate the current bunch of Australian swimmers to strive for glory at Rio and tackle issues like pressure.
“(In this role) I share my experience — what is was like for me in highly competitive situations under extreme pressure. Some of the swimmers have asked me for help privately with their preparation. They ask me things like whether something they are trying is worthwhile. I ended up loving my sport again and I realised what value I can give to other people. Be able to inspire others.”
Is this what he would like his legacy to be?
“I don’t mind so much about these things (legacy). It’s not what motivates me. I care about what people close to me think of me.”