To the bulk of the world he's Thorpedo. Fellow Australians call him, inevitably, Thorpey. To the adoring Japanese, Ian Thorpe is some sort of deity who appears to walk on water, and our Nipponese friends may not be far wide of the mark there, as it happens. Earlier this month Dr Bruce Mason, head biomechanist to the Australian swimming team, claimed he may have unlocked the secret of the 19-year-old Thorpe's blistering speed in the swimming pool. Dr Mason has come to the astonishing conclusion that Thorpedo is so fast he literally surfs the waves he makes in the water, riding them like some human hovercraft.
And since his physique is developing and talent still burgeoning, there is the awesome possibility that Thorpe's bow wave and the one that builds between his hips and feet will get bigger and become easier for him to ride.
Yes, said Ian Thorpe on Friday, he had heard this theory but hadn't yet had time to talk to Dr Mason about it. Little wonder. Thorpe and his management team were briefly in London, having flown in from New York that morning en route to Manchester, where yesterday the world's greatest swimmer had a test dip in the Commonwealth Games pool.
So those famous size 17 feet have hardly touched ground since departing Sydney last Monday for a whirlwind week, culminating in a flight back home last night, which was supposed to provide an antidote to the rigours of recent competition in the Australian national championships.
By the time London showed up, Thorpe had managed two nights out of five in a bed and three on a plane. "He sleeps well on flights," said his weary manager, Dave Flaskas, "but I don't." In New York, Thorpe collected an award as "the world's most outstanding athlete" presented by the International Athletic Association, and indicated what an honour it was to be numbered among those who have won in the past, going back to names like Jesse Owens. As to when he actually picked up the trophy, even the indefatigable Thorpe was defeated by the requirement to name days of the week in this punishing schedule. "Not last night, the night before," he offered, after a deep think.
Nor could he help much in the matter of how many times he has broken a world record. "Sixteen," offered someone from an adjoining sofa in Chelsea Village. The total is actually 17. Whatever, the progress of this 6ft 4in miracle man has been measured, as he himself points out, "in annual increments".
He explained: "I made my first Australian national team when I was 14 [the youngest in history]. When I was 15 I became a world champion, when I was 16 I broke my first world record and when I was 17 I became an Olympic champion." It didn't stop there, of course. At the world championships in Japan last year, Thorpe became the first swimmer to scoop six gold medals. No wonder they love him so much there; he has been appointed "official holiday ambassador to Japan for Australian tourism". At home he has been Male Athlete of the Year, Swimmer of the Year, Australian of the Year and winner of Sport Australia's Hall of Fame Sir Donald Bradman Award. Even the Americans made him their World Swimmer of the Year.
And his personal favourite from this cascade of honours? The 2000 Olympics in his home city, Sydney, where he swam to three golds and a brace of silvers. "Being at the Olympics was bigger than anything you can achieve in the sport. I didn't realise as an athlete how big the Olympics actually was until I experienced it myself. Just being there is something very, very special," said the teenager chosen to carry his nation's banner at the closing ceremony.
Still more than six months away from his 20th birthday, Thorpe has embraced fame and its inevitable corollary, fortune, early even by the standards of a sport where the first act on climbing out of a pram is to strike gold. This is because, in the opinion of Seb Coe, Thorpe was built for swimming the way Kenyans are built for running. As the Australian swimming coach, Brian Sutton, said: "If you were going to do a Frankenstein and put a swimmer together from scratch, you would build Ian Thorpe."
Yet the beginnings of that construction process were distinctly unusual. The second child of Margaret and Ken Thorpe claims he got fed up, as a small boy, of being required to watch his talented older sister, Christina, swim. "It's a long haul when you're sitting at a swim carnival just watching, so I decided I'd better get involved as well." This was not easy, since Ian was diagnosed allergic to chlorine. But the mettle of a champion was displayed early. "I used to bellyflop into the pool and swim with a clip on my nose and my head out of the water." Soon the allergy subsided and Thorpe won his first competition a year later, aged nine.
By that stage Thorpe was teamed with his long-time coach, Doug Frost. Of his relationship with the 58-year-old Frost, Ian says: "We have a great deal of respect for each other, and admiration too. We have been on a shared journey for a long time now." That journey has involved the most dedicated training regime for Thorpe, who still lives at home and still gets up at exactly 4.17 every weekday morning to make himself toast before setting off to arrive by 4.45 at the Sutherland Leisure Centre in the southern suburbs of Sydney. There are two swim sessions every day, totalling 10 a week, plus a weight or fitness routine every day, too. Even when, on his 17th birthday in October 1999, he broke his left ankle stepping on a rock while out on a run in Sydney's Royal National Park, training was not long interrupted. "I ran the rest of the way back and then went for my swim," he recalled. "An X-ray next day showed I had snapped the bone completely in half." He spent four days out of the water before returning to the pool with the ankle in a fibreglass cast. Looking on the bright side, Thorpe says the injury helped him improve upper-body strength.
As his reputation grew, so did the media's obsession with his feet. "Yes, my feet are big," he says in his book, Ian Thorpe – The Journey. "But I'm a big person and they are not out of proportion. I'm pretty tired of all the talk. It is presumed I swim well because of my feet, and it's not just that." The foot fetish has subsided somewhat, especially since Thorpe's age surpassed his shoe size.
What has caught the eye and the imagination ever since those glory days at the 2000 Olympics has been the maturity and modesty of this talented young man. The Italian Massimiliano Rosolino, silver medallist in Thorpe's world-record wake in the Sydney 400 metres freestyle, paid remarkable tribute to the man who had just beaten him. Sure, said Rosolino, Thorpe was a great and powerful swimmer, a competitor born to the water. "But the most remarkable thing about Ian," he added, "is that his brain has kept pace with his body through a phenomenal growth spurt. It shows in every way. How he conducts himself, how he speaks and how he performs. It's marvellous, and it's very rare."
Even though he is a sporting champion in a nation which seems to produce such heroes as a matter of course, Thorpe has endeared himself to other Australians by a demeanour which matches his genius, just as Rosolino points out. The comparison has been made with Tiger Woods. "He has become a similar figure of hope, an ultimate role model," claims the 1988 Olympic 200m freestyle champion, Duncan Armstrong. "He marries grace with power. He caresses the water, but when it's time to be brutal he's like a raging bull."
Thorpe has also been compared to those killers of the deep, sharks, by Ashley Callus, who was beaten by Thorpe in the 100m freestyle at the national championships earlier this month. Thorpe's time of 48.98sec was his fastest for the distance in an Australian pool and capped a victory treble in the 100m, 200m and 400m freestyle events, bringing from Callus the comment: "Ian is an incredible swimmer, especially in the last 10 metres. He wears that big black suit and he's like a shark coming towards you."
Sharks and Thorpe are hardly strangers. For his first post-Olympic sponsorship shoot, he was persuaded by the watch people Omega to propel himself into a pool of sharks at Sydney Aquarium. "There were over 20 sharks in there," Thorpe grinned. "I really enjoyed it. No, I wasn't nervous, but you could say I was stunned. I was really keen to do it when I was approached. I sat still on the bottom, though I had to keep going up for air, that was the problem. If I moved a little bit, one of the sharks would dart off, so I didn't get all that close to them. They were big sharks, though."
When it comes to near things, Thorpe had a much closer shave at the World Trade Centre on 11 September. Having arrived in New York the previous evening, he woke up early and went for a run, which ended with a coffee in the plaza of the Centre. "It was probably half an hour before the attack," he remembered. "I walked back to my hotel to get Michelle Flaskas, my manager's wife, because she had said she wanted to go to the top. On my way the buildings were struck."
It is rare that Ian Thorpe's fate is out of his hands to such an extent. "I am a control freak," he said in explanation of the manner in which he has managed to control the explosion of interest and surge of demand for his time. "I set in concrete my training schedule and away from that I fit things in, as long as they are not going to affect any part of my training. I have done that for quite some time now."
And how does he describe himself? "I am shy, but apart from that I don't know. Intense? No, I am very relaxed in and around the pool when I am competing, but when I am in the water I am very intense. In everything I do I never try to compare myself with anyone else. I try to satisfy my own expectation, as opposed to doing what other people want me to do. I train to be the very best I can be, and don't worry about what anyone else is doing."
For someone whose name brings in millions of pounds annually, Thorpe is indifferent to its benefits. "For me, money has no relevance to what I do. It's not part of my swimming. My intention when I started was not to become wealthy from the sport in any way whatsoever. I swam because I enjoyed it, and I'm still enjoying it." So much so that in London on Friday he confessed the break from training was proving irksome. "I feel very unfit, very lazy. I am so keen to get back into the water."
After he lands in Sydney tomorrow, Thorpe will have a few days to recover before resuming training. He will also be keen to have a talk to Dr Mason about that surfing business. "I was quite excited when I heard about it," he said, "But I can't get my head around how it works." No doubt it won't take him long.
Biography: Ian Thorpe
Born: 13 October 1982.
Lives: Milperra, Sydney
Height: 1.95m. Weight: 96kg.
First made a splash: In 1997, aged 14, he won 10 gold medals at NSW Age Short Course Championships. In 1998 he became youngest male world champion and won four golds at the Commonwealth Games.
Current individual world records: LC: 200m free. 800m free. SC: 200m free.
Major individual victories: 1998: Long course world champion 400m free. Commonwealth champion 200m free, 400m free. 1999: Short course World champion 200m free. Pan Pacs gold 200m free, 400m free. 2000: Olympic champion 400m free. 2001: LC World champion 200m free, 400m free and 800m free.