As Australian swimming legend Ian Thorpe turns 39, we look back at his decorated career - and status as an LGBTQ icon.
Ian Thorpe is without a doubt one of the most recognisable names in the world of swimming. The former Australian swimmer has won five Olympic gold medals, the most alongside Emma McKeon.
He also became the youngest swimmer ever to represent Australia when he made his debut. It is amazing to look back and realise that he was only 14 when he made his debut for Australia.
But such was his talent from a young age that he was impossible to ignore. And he would go on to fulfill his potential, winning medals in the Olympics and the World Championship too.
But Thorpe is more than just a legend of the pools. That he achieved all that he did as a gay man makes him an even bigger hero to many.
In a world where homosexuality is still struggling for acceptance, there is a need for members of the community to have success in the outside world to spread their message.
Thorpe was one of the LGBTQ icons of the early 2000s, although it is worth noting he didn’t come out until 2014. Thus, on the occasion of his 39th birthday, let us look back at his career and life.
Just before his international debut in the 1997 Pan Pacific Championships, Thorpe needed appendix surgery. This caused him to miss two months worth of training.
Nevertheless, he would win two silver medals – one in the 400m freestyle event and the other in the 4 x 200m freestyle relay.
One year later at the World Championships, he won medals in the same events – this time gold. He followed this up with four gold medals in the Commonwealth Games in the same year.
Suddenly, people were beginning to take notice of just how good Thorpe was. And he was about to get a whole lot better.
More medals followed at the 1999 World Short Course Championships (2 gold, 1 silver) and 1999 Pan Pacific Championships (4 golds). Given the 2000 Olympics were to be held at Sydney, expectations on Thorpe were sky-high. ‘
He did not disappoint, winning 5 medals – 3 gold and 2 silver – in the Games. His exploits meant he was the most successful athlete at the 2000 Olympic Games.
He was not done yet, however. The 2001 World Championships saw him win an astonishing 6 gold medals. Then a year later at the Commonwealth Games, he won 7 medals – 6 gold and 1 silver.
The Pan Pacific Championships held thereafter saw him claim another six medals – 5 gold, 1 silver. After that, he took the decision to change coaches, leaving Doug Frost for one of his assistants, Tracy Menzies.
The move was surprising since Menzies had no international experience. However, Thorpe would keep on winning. However, his medal tally at the 2004 Olympics was disappointing and is more remembered for his false start controversy.
Thereafter, he took a break from the sport then retired in 2006. A brief comeback from 2011-12 didn’t last long either.
The sexuality of Ian Thorpe had been a topic of discussion for years. He even denied being gay many times, including in his 2012 autobiography. However, he finally came out in 2014.
“I’m comfortable saying I’m a gay man. And I don’t want young people to feel the same way that I did. You can grow up, you can be comfortable and you can be gay,” he said in an interview with Michael Parkinson.
“I was concerned about the reaction from my family, my friends. I’m pleased to say that in telling them, and especially my parents, they told me that they love me and they support me.”
“And for young people out there, know that that’s usually what the answer is. People will criticise me, some people won’t like the idea, other people may applaud me for it. But it’s… it’s me.
“I’m a little bit ashamed that I didn’t come out earlier, that I didn’t have the strength to do it, I didn’t have the courage to do it, to break that lie.
“But everyone goes on their own path to do this.”
In that same interview, Thorpe also spoke on his battles with depression and how he overcame them.
“I am a tremendously successful athlete. I should be having the time of my life, and I’m not.
“And so I decided to keep it from people when I know that the best thing I could have done was to actually speak to my friends, to include my family in this, for people to watch out for me.
“But I wanted to, in some way, protect those people that were close to me… because I saw how happy they were from things that I did and I wanted them to have that.”
Ian Thorpe is a legend for his accomplishments in the pool. But it is his inspirational stories away from sport that will see him live on as an icon.