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Still Cool

June 08, 2004|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — He says all the right things the right way. You are thinking Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky or Alex Rodriguez, those vintage models of the superstar athlete in the clothes of a cool corporate pitchman.

Swim star Ian Thorpe, winner of three gold medals and two silver at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, seems to slot neatly into that role, delivering sound bites almost on cue. The ability has been fine-tuned through years of interviews, the knowledge that his quotes will be parsed, weighed and all but played backward in swimming-crazed Australia.

There is more under the surface, though.

"It's like an artist doing a canvas," said his coach, Tracey Menzies. "There's many layers that go into a canvas, but when you put up the exhibition being viewed, all you see is up on the walls. When he races, all you're seeing is the finished product."

Thorpe has smoothly navigated several potentially difficult issues -- most prominently, his controversial disqualification in the 400-meter freestyle at the Australian national trials and the decision of colleague Craig Stevens to give up the spot for him in Athens at the Olympics. He and Stevens and some of their national teammates will be swimming in Long Beach at the Janet Evans Invitational, which starts Thursday.

A layer is peeled back when the topic of his female coach comes up. Menzies, 31, took over from Thorpe's longtime mentor, Doug Frost, in the fall of 2002. For Thorpe, the bar is set so high that non-world-record performances, let alone non-gold-medal swims are viewed as disappointments.

The scrutiny is equal opportunity, and Menzies has caught some heat, which started with questions about her qualifications to guide the career of a 21-year-old legend, in his prime. Thorpe is asked how much of this flak is because Menzies is a woman.

"Yeah, a lot," Thorpe said. "This is very much like a men's club, basically. Especially in Australia. That's the way it always has been and a lot of people would like to keep it that way."

Forget the Jordan comparison.

"He's a very brave warrior," Menzies said. "When he goes out, he defends himself very, very well."

Yeah, on land as well as in the water.

"Ian was developing from a boy to a man too," she said. "He needed new challengers, new aspects in his life.

"In the last two years, he's developed a lot as a person as well as a swimmer. He wanted to take more control of his life."

This included making the coaching change, a move he thought necessary to stay in the sport.

"I think I was a little bit lost there for a while," Thorpe said. "I wasn't enjoying myself as much as I had in the past. I was still enjoying it but not to the extent I had while I was growing up. I had to find that, otherwise I wasn't going to do this any longer. I would have been prepared to walk away from the sport if I didn't get that satisfaction in my training, and actual enjoyment."

And now?

"I'm happy. I'm enjoying myself again," Thorpe said.

There were always hints of steel behind the smile, even before Thorpe made his Olympic debut at Sydney in 2000, in the midst of countrywide pressure. He and his handlers successfully argued that his then-Adidas Equipment Bodysuit be classified as "technical equipment," which allowed him to wear the full bodysuit instead of the one made by rival manufacturer Speedo, which was sponsoring the Australian swim team.

Thorpe was talking with three reporters, two of them European, late last month when he was training with several members of the Australian national team at the Northern Arizona University High-Altitude Training Center. Behind him were promotions of his new Jetconcept bodysuit. The suit was brought out, and Thorpe said putting it on took him about 20 minutes.

Flagstaff, though, was far removed from the Stevens development. The episode started when Thorpe inexplicably tumbled off the blocks at the Australian Olympic trials in March in the 400, something that doesn't happen to age-group swimmers, much less the defending Olympic champion.

The false start disqualified him from the preliminaries and his subsequent appeal was denied. Everyone seemed to have an opinion, from national political leaders to his teammates to famous former Olympians to stunned U.S. competitors, who were shocked to see the sequence of photos of the splash and crash on the Internet.

Thorpe handled the matter in a classy fashion, becoming one of the few to emerge with an enhanced reputation. Stevens, who later stepped aside in favor of Thorpe, endured sleepless nights and was criticized in some quarters for accepting money from the Seven Network to make the announcement on national television in Australia.

In Flagstaff, Thorpe said, "I don't think the rule should be changed. I think the understanding, being able to listen to an athlete, should be considered a little more closely than it actually was at that decision. It was grueling, and it was tough.

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