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Thorpe Taps Into Bowman's Twin Tests

Mar 17, 2011  - Craig Lord

Ian Thorpe had had just one regret on the comeback trail so far: he wished he would have made up his mind sooner, for now, he says, there is no time before London 2012 to get in shape for his signature 400m freestyle.

In an interview with Christof Gertsch, of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung today, after a press conference yesterday at which Thorpe confirmed that he would spend much of his time under the guidance of Russian coach Gennadi Touretski at Tenero, home of the Swiss Swimming performance centre, the Olympic 200m and 400m champion of 2004 pinpointed the weakness already spotted by others: "I have to get used to the idea that swimmers today are staying under the water longer and travelling further and faster off the walls than they did [during Thorpe's first career]."

Those two issues are the very points picked up by Michael Phelps's coach Bob Bowman on February 2 when Thorpe announced his comeback in Australia. Phelps was at the helm of a generation of Americans who introduced what Australian coach Bill Sweetenham dubbed  "the Fifth Stroke" in 2007: dolphin-kicking out of starts and turns with a reach, speed and efficiency never seen before.  To be competitive, Thorpe must add that skill to his armoury in time for London 2012. 

Asked if Thorpe could be supremely competitive once more, Bowman said: "Time will tell. He's a great competitor. He's a fabulous talent. The question is exactly that: is there time? But he has a great background. I don't think age is a factor, I think the timeframe is a factor."

On suits, starts and turns, Bowman added: "The suits will make a big difference. In terms of streamlining and stroke he [Thorpe] should have no trouble. He set a world record in briefs. But what will make the difference is the speed off walls and the underwaters. He didn't push the boundaries very much on that at his best."

In his interview with Gertsch at Neue Zürcher, Thorpe said that he had moved away from Australia to train because back home "I'd be watched every step of the way". He had not taken what was "a difficult decision" lightly but in sizing matters up had remembered just how heavily the issue of being constantly in the public eye had contributed to him retiring from the sport in 2006. "I didn't like it that people knew every single thing I was doing all the time," said Thorpe.

He described Tenero as "my home until London 2012" and left the door open to swim on after the Olympic Games next year. He had known Touretski from the days when the Russian was a senior coach at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, with the likes of Alex Popov and Michael Klim among his charges, adding: "Besides, I like his philosophy, the way he thinks and talks about the sport."

Asked if life had been so dull that it had driven him back to the pool, he replied: "How could you think that! My life was thrilling. I was doing TV documentaries, travelling around the globe as a businessman and I'd started to work for the World Economic Forum [based in Davos, Switzerland] … I was in a great place. But after visiting London last autumn, I thought about swimming again and I couldn't shake it off."

Now his life was more boring once more by comparison. "I go to bed early, get up early, my day is laid out for me."  He admitted to being a fan of regime.

The comebacks of Lance Armstrong and Michael Schumacher, among others, had been something of a damp squib. Did he think the same could happen to him, Gertsch asked. "Of course, I'm taking a risk," said Thorpe. It would have been easier to sit home and rest on his laurels, added the former world record holder. "But we don't come back just because we want to win - we want to enjoy the sport … People expect us to be the same as we were. That's a mistake - because we all change."

The beauty of his comeback, he noted, was that he could "begin at zero". Thorpe, who went looking for a place to stay yesterday and plans to learn Italian, concluded by saying that he had now shed the rucksack of expectations that he had carried around with him for too long.

Travelling to Switzerland to get away from home is no antidote to expectation, however, and not all expectations are unreasonable, according to some leading lights in the sport.  Among the many conversations that veer to Thorpe's comeback are a fair few that go something like this: while Thorpe's personal ambitions and definitions of success are rightly the most important thing to him, at some stage they might well coincide with what others hope for him - the best, and in sport that means winning.

When a swimmer of the calibre of Thorpe engages a coach like Touretski in a partnership that woos the head coach of Australia, Leigh Nugent, half way around the world, Bernard Savage, head of sports science in tow, it is not hard to see why winning might be part of the fun, fundamental to the mission even. Especially in a world inhabited by Michael Phelps, who never shies from talking in terms of goals, preparation, rehearsal, racing, competing and all those other keywords that convey the meaning of sport and its ultimate ambition - victory.