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Tuesday, September 19, 2000

Something familiar here

Thorpe is Australia's Wayne Gretzky -- staggeringly talented and humble


  SYDNEY -- Freeze the water in which Ian Thorpe swims, substitute Australia for its commonwealth sister, Canada, and you can understand what's up Down Under.

 Ian Thorpe, just 17, is Australia's Wayne Gretzky -- a staggeringly talented but numbingly average guy who has grabbed a country by the heartstrings. He is an athletic prodigy and role model. Mark my words, in 10 years this guy will marry a B-movie actress and head to L.A. for Jimmy Carson, a couple of stiffs and cash.

 Thorpe proved himself human, pleasantly so yesterday, as he lost the men's 200-metre freestyle to Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband by half a second -- or about one-twentieth of the time it takes to say Pieter van den Hoogenband. The Dutch swimmer swam a world-record time and Australia went into mourning over a silver medal.

 How big is Ian Thorpe? Let's start with the song, published in the Sydney Daily Telegraph and sung, for those of you chiming aloud at home, to the tune of New York, New York.

 "Start spreadin' the news, he's swimmin' today, he's gonna win the lot of it, Ian Thorpe, Ian Thorpe. We hope you're wearing a swimsuit that doesn't leak, and find your king of the pool, right at your peak, king of the pool, kick those big feet."

 Oh yes, the feet. They are size 17, big honking feet that tell you that, at 17 years of age, Ian Thorpe is not done growing and should not pine for female company in his adult years.

 Want to know more? He wears glasses, likes Adam Sandler, animals, ice cream and mum's cooking. He can't sing a lick and jumped into the pool at age eight because he was sick of doing nothing while his sister trained.

 At 17, Wayne Gretzky was starring in his home country as an Edmonton Oiler and tuning up for his obliteration of the NHL record books. Thorpe, who has two golds to go with his freshly minted silver, has been named Australia's male athlete and sports personality of the year. He's most recognizable by his father's prodigious nose and doesn't that remind you of someone.

 But here's what makes you wonder if the Oilers didn't barnstorm Down Under, say 18 years ago. Ian Thorpe is unabashedly, unfailingly and almost impossibly nice.

 Was he disappointed in falling just short of a third gold in front of the home crowd?

 "I'm happy with the result," he said. "I gave it my best shot."

 Was he surprised by the defeat? "No, these are the Olympic Games. These people are the best in the world. It's just a privilege to swim here."

 Now, really, not just a little disappointed?

 "No. A great athlete beat me. I'm not going to win every race, I'm not going to break a world record every time."

 He was marvellous, sincere without overplaying it, humble with just a nuance of self-deprecation. I'm telling you, the kid has been watching tapes of Hockey Night in Canada.

 CHRISTIAN MENTALITY

 "I don't know if he's Christian, but he's got a Christian mentality," Australian Internet journalist Ric Chapman said. "He won a race in which the first prize was $20,000. He gave it to charity."

 An Ian Thorpe postage stamp hit the market yesterday. An ad starring Thorpe and built around a replay of his first gold-medal swim was on TV an hour after he pulled himself out of the pool.

 The Daily Telegraph devoted a centrespread to the eye-glazing, "How to raise a boy as nice as Ian Thorpe." The answer, apparently, is to feed him and use good Aussie common sense and avoid beating him about the body with a canoe paddle. More news on this as it becomes available.

 Need more proof of a Thorpe-Gretzky link? How about this quote, from a swim magazine about the demands of the public. "I don't get the chance to rest because I'm always Ian Thorpe."

 Just 17 and already referring to himself in the third person. Next week: No one person is bigger than the sport of swimming.

 Thorpe plans to swim until 2008. That means there is an outside chance he will finish his career in Toronto. You know, near the end, all the Great Ones want to.