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Inside Olympic Sports

Sixteen-year-old Australian Ian Thorpe is swimming's new phenom

Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe was bred to be a star athlete on
land, not in water. "I had the backyard all laid out and the
[practice] nets from where I used to coach," said his father,
Ken, a former cricketer and club team coach with Bankstown. Ken
spoke shortly after Ian had destroyed the world record in the
400-meter freestyle at the Pan Pacific Championships in Sydney
on Sunday. "He was going to be a cricket player."

Ian didn't become one--"He lacked coordination," explained his
sister, Christina. "He was a fish out of water"--but cricket's
loss has been swimming's gain. Thorpe, a 6'4", 212-pound water
baby who doesn't turn 17 until October, blew the competition out
at the Pan Pacific. He followed his 400-meter stunner by
motoring through a 200-meter freestyle semifinal in 1:46.34 on
Monday, shaving a third of a second off teammate Grant Hackett's
five-month-old world mark. In between, less than an hour after
he won the 400, he anchored the Aussies' gold medal performance
in the 4x100 freestyle relay. It was the first loss ever by a
U.S. men's 4x100 free relay team at a major meet. "While you
recognize the [400] world record as being great," said
Australian coach Don Talbot, "to win the relay and topple the
Americans is better."

That's debatable, since Thorpe's 400 performance drew raves as
one of the most impressive swims in history. Talbot, among
others, believes that the Thorpedo, as Aussies call Thorpe,
could become the best swimmer ever. Midway through the 400,
Thorpe was in second place behind Hackett, then he pulled away
over the final 200 meters, powered by his size-16 feet. Thorpe
finished in 3:41.83, paring 1.97 seconds off teammate Kieren
Perkins's five-year-old record, the largest reduction in the 400
mark since 1980. "The thing I see in Ian that nobody else has is
his tremendous acceleration," says Talbot. "He's a Ferrari when
he decides he's going to take off."

Though Thorpe is barely old enough to drive, this wasn't his
coming-out party. He became the youngest male member of
Australia's national team in 41 years when he made the 1997 Pan
Pacific squad as a 14-year-old. A year later he became the
youngest male world champion when he won the 400 free at the
worlds in Perth.

Thorpe pocketed $16,000 after Sunday's 400 final for setting the
first world record in Sydney's new Olympic pool and immediately
donated the money to a local children's cancer charity and a
Sydney-based crisis hotline. "I don't need the money," said
Thorpe, who already has enough from his Australian sponsors,
which include a major bank.

Women's 100 Butterfly

For almost two decades, the women's 100-meter butterfly has been
ruled not by an individual but by a number: 57.93. When
16-year-old Mary T. Meagher swam that Beamonesque time 18 years
ago, she set a world standard so lofty that even she would never
come close to it again.

On Monday at the Pan Pacifics, 26-year-old Jenny Thompson of the
U.S. finally erased swimming's second-oldest world record,
bettering Meagher's mark by .05. "The record used to seem like a
long shot," said Thompson, whose 58.15 clocking at the U.S.
nationals two weeks earlier had signaled that she was ready to
challenge Meagher's mark. "Tonight I didn't know where I was in
the race, but I just kept going and hoped that [the record] was

Thompson has been a national team member for almost half her
life and arguably has been the finest American female swimmer of
the 1990s. She entered the Pan Pacs as the last U.S. woman to
have set a world record (54.48 in the 100-meter freestyle at the
'92 Olympic trials), and her five Olympic gold medals (two in
Barcelona in '92 and three in Atlanta in '96)--all earned on
relays--tie her with Bonnie Blair for the most won by a U.S.

Yet her failure to win individual Olympic gold has kept her
largely in the shadow of bigger-name swimmers like Janet Evans
and Summer Sanders. At the 1996 Olympic trials, she didn't
qualify in any individual event, leaving in doubt her future in
the sport.

Thompson was .81 of a second under record pace midway through the
100 fly final in Sydney. She held on through the final, painful
meters amid the din of 15,000 fans, including her mother,
Margrid, and then, suddenly, there it was for all to see: 57.88.
The 100 fly was ruled by a new number. --Josh Elliott

Track & Field

As U.S. sprinter Tim Montgomery sat with his face in his hands
underneath the stands at the world track and field championships
in Athens two years ago, having just been on the receiving end
of a botched baton pass that had led to the disqualification of
the American 4x100-meter relay team in the first round, an
administrator from the U.S. passed by and reviewed the day's
relay events: "Sixty-one teams, 181 handoffs and only one
f---up," he said. "Why does it always have to be us?"

Simple. The Americans, the world leaders in late lineup swaps,
aversion to practicing handoffs and political wrangling, have no
permanent relay coach and no system to bring sprinters together
in organized practice sessions. Too often relays are slapped
together at the last minute. As a result the U.S. men's
4x100-meter teams at the last two worlds executed one successful
stick pass all told before being disqualified in their opening
heats. Canada, by contrast, won the men's 4x100 at the last two
worlds and the 1996 Olympics using the same four sprinters in
every final and seldom making early-round substitutions.

So it was already a victory for 1999 U.S. men's coach George
Williams when he coaxed all six members of the 4x100 squad into
four days of baton-passing drills in Monte Carlo two weeks ago.
"Regardless of what happens in Seville [site of this year's
world championships], we know that we've done everything we can
to erase the stigma of beating ourselves," says Williams.
--Brian Cazeneuve

COLOR PHOTO: GREG WOOD/AFP Ferrari-like acceleration helped Thorpe smash the 400 record.