Thorpedo Away!


Outside magazine, July 1999

Thorpedo Away!
Ian Thorpe has really humongous feet, and he’s a damn good swimmer

Say, Honey, What’s This Next to the Frozen Vegetables?
“We do encourage the salvaging of dead herpetological samples,” explains John Jensen. “If someone scrapes something off a Georgia highway, puts it in their freezer, then mails it to us later, that’s great.” Jensen, a state wildlife biologist, is trying to generate greater public involvement in the Georgia Herp Atlas Project, a
program to map the range of his state’s 165 species of reptiles and amphibians. Jensen says that gathering up the actual critters is important because many species are notoriously difficult to differentiate in photographs. The broadhead skink, for example, can be identified only by counting the number of scales on its lip. So far the project has garnered
some 200 flattened corpses—and in the process has provoked the concern of local roadkill authorities. “If you’re peeling something off the highway and cars are speeding by,” says Larry Cook, assistant director of public works for Dougherty County, Georgia, “well, it’d be a traffic hazard. There’s just no doubt about it.”

Swimming may be one of the closest things Australia has to a national sport, but the amount of attention that has been lavished on Ian Thorpe is extraordinary by any standard. Male swimmers usually don’t start peaking in the sexiest events—the middle-distance freestyle races—until age 22. But last September, at the
Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, Thorpe, who was only 16 at the time, snapped up four gold medals. Seven months later, in Hong Kong, he broke a nine-year-old world record in the 200-meter freestyle, a feat that inspired Don Talbot, the Australian national team coach, to describe him as “genetics gone crazy.”

Thorpe is six-foot-four, weighs 200 pounds, and is nicknamed “the Thorpedo” because—though he tends to trail behind for the first three-quarters of the 200- and 400-meter freestyles—he passes everyone like a speeding bullet during the last lap. He has also sparked a series of national taproom debates from Sydney to Perth. At the moment, his fans are
discussing two key issues. First, there’s the Sydney Olympics next year and the question of whether Thorpe will challenge the records Mark Spitz set when he won seven gold medals in 1972. There’s also a heated wrangle over the secret of Thorpe’s prowess. The majority view holds that his key weapons are his enormous feet. They’re size 16 and still growing (he special
orders his shoes through the mail), and the theory is that they act like fins to propel him through the water.

Thorpe says that despite being a bit frazzled by all the attention and finding the swim-fins hypothesis biomechanically dubious, he accepts the fact that it’s all somewhat inevitable. “In Australia,” he points out, “being a swimmer is a bit like being a rock star.” It’s a state of affairs that his American rivals must envy as they gird for next month’s Pan Pacific
Games in Sydney, where Australia and the United States are expected to compete for top honors. “He could be one of the greatest freestylers of the century,” says Josh Davis, the U.S. team captain who won three gold medals in the 1996 Olympics and will compete directly against Thorpe. “You see him in the 200 or the 400 freestyle, and you think, ‘Holy cow, this is
beautiful.’ ” —COLIN MOYNIHAN