September, 2000: The Sydney Olympics were in full swing and there was no bigger name in Australia – or the pool - than Ian Thorpe.
Over six feet tall, donning his trademark black, full-length bodysuit, the man known as ‘Thorpedo’ won five medals - three of them gold in world-record time. He was the most successful athlete at the Games. In a golden age of Australian swimming, this soft spoken 17-year-old was the sport’s shining star.
Thorpe's medals tally
Yet, in his 2012 autobiography ‘This is Me’, Thorpe admitted that around the same time, he was battling “crippling” depression. He felt alone – contemplating suicide even - and was unable to appreciate his own success.
“You can be a really great athlete and have all the attributes of mental toughness but, in real life, it doesn't work,” Thorpe wrote. “I was really tough when I raced but I couldn't hold the rest of my life together."
And now, aged 31, Thorpe’s life appears to be in tatters once again.
In February this year, police found him disoriented on a Sydney street - under the influence of anti-depressants and pain killers. He was admitted to a rehabilitation clinic. More recently, he has contracted serious infections following shoulder operations and is unlikely to swim competitively again.
Like many child stars before him, adulthood has been full of rough waters for Thorpe. But what role did the intense pressure placed on the talented young swimmers play?
Swimming is a big part of the Australian summer culture. While most are in it for the fun, ‘Swimming Club’ kids are easy to pick. They’re the only ones wearing swimming caps and goggles, while their parents nervously pace the pool deck, stopwatch and notepads in hand.
Many are plunging into chilly pools early in the morning, training before, and often after, school.
Thorpe was one of them. By 12, he was breaking state and national age-records. At 14, he became the youngest male to represent Australia in swimming. A year later, he was the youngest individual World Champion. By the time he announced his retirement in 2006, Thorpe had won five Olympic gold medals and 11 World Championships. But at just 24, he was starting life from scratch.
Assisting young swimmers is now part of a renewed focus on athletes’ well-being, according to the new Swimming Australia President John Bertrand (best known as the captain of Australia’s successful America’s Cup sailing team in 1983).
“Providing athletes the skills to deal with the expectation is certainly something that we will continue to look at,” Bertrand told Al Jazeera.
“A sports psychologist travels with all major teams and we’ll continue to work with the state institutes of sport to educate athletes through its athlete well-being program.”
Individual sports offer and carry a unique type of pressure - you have nobody else to rely on or hide behind.
Successful athletes are forced to spend their careers focusing almost exclusively on themselves. Take away your life’s sole focus and it’s inevitable that some will struggle.
In the aftermath of his retirement, Thorpe occupied himself with guest appearances, endorsements and the odd media stint. He announced a comeback in February 2011 with the intention of competing at the London Olympics the following year.
"There are some mornings when, if I didn't have the routine of training, I would struggle to get out of bed,” he wrote in his autobiography.
There are some mornings when, if I didn't have the routine of training, I would struggle to get out of bed
The Australian trials for the London Olympics restored Thorpe to the front pages and top of the news bulletins across the country. It was a media circus.
But he failed to qualify. In fact, he didn’t make a final before disappearing from the limelight once again. Until recently, of course.
Thorpe’s struggles are part of the on-going problems in Australian swimming circles.
Grant Hackett, fellow Sydney Olympics swimming star, has been receiving treatment in a US clinic for an addiction to sleeping pills.
London 2012 was one of the worst on record for Australia’s swim team that went home with a solitary gold. A post-event review slammed the squad as “culturally toxic”, citing bullying incidents and the misuse of prescription drugs and alcohol.
That prompted Swimming Australia to appoint former Olympians Michael Klim and Susie O’Neill into mentor positions. Thorpe and Hackett could one day be considered for similar mentor roles.
“There are number of programs and people available to assist in the well-being area, preparing for life after swimming – and finding the right balance in and out of the pool,” Bertrand added. “When the timing is right, we’ll be in touch to talk to Thorpe and Hackett about what, if any, level of involvement they would like to have.”
Michael Phelps, the most successful swimmer and Olympian ever, has just begun his own comeback but perhaps the lesson to be learnt from Thorpe is that new chapters aren’t always easy to write.