Oh, yes, and he was the best swimmer ever built, the evolutionary result of all the swimmers who had churned through all the pools for all time. "You look at the underwater films of him, and he does all the things we're trying to teach our kids every day," Dave Salo, a U.S. assistant coach, said. "You look at his elbows extended, the way he uses his hands as levers, the long-footed kicks. He's a combination of everything."
"You start with his size," Richard Quick, the U.S. women's coach, said. "He has such strength but at the same time has such a natural feel for the water. Plus a tremendous engine. He could swim, I think, any distance. Put him in the 50, the 100, and I don't say he'd win, but he'd be right there. Put him in the mile, the 1,500, same thing. He'd be around at the end."
His showcase was the final leg of the 4 x 100. The U.S. had never lost this race in the Olympics or the world championships. The event had the same MADE IN AMERICA stamp that the Dream Team has put on basketball. The Australians had beaten the U.S. a year ago at the Pan-Pacific Championships in the Olympic pool, but the Americans noted that U.S. sprint champion and top anchor Gary Hall Jr. wasn't at that meet. He was here now, as cocky as ever, promising that the Americans would "break the Australians like guitars." He was matched against Thorpe.
"What Hall said didn't bother us," Australian sprint star Michael Klim said. "This isn't a sport with physical contact. You swim your own race. You could see on paper, the times of everyone, that it was going to be a very close race."
Close it was. The Australians top-loaded their lineup, sending Klim out first against young Anthony Ervin. Klim responded by churning 100 meters in 48.18, a world record for the distance. Ervin responded by swimming a 48.89, a personal best. The Aussies had a lead of .71 of a second.
The race went into a pattern. On each succeeding leg the Americans (Neil Walker, then Jason Lezak and then Hall) erased the Aussie lead by the turn at the end of the first 50 meters. On the second 50 meters, each Australian (Chris Fydler, then Ashley Callus and then Thorpe) regained the edge. The Americans were in lane 4 and the Australians in lane 5, so going down the pool, breathing on the right side, the Americans were blind to what the Aussies were doing. Coming back, able to peek through their goggles as they took their breaths, they could see first that they were in the lead, then, oh, my, they weren't in the lead. The back-and-forth exchanges of the lead, swimming caps bobbing along, looked from the stands like one of those dot races on a stadium megaboard, the winner unclear until the end.
Thorpe's final leg had the crowd of 17,500 howling as he tracked down Hall. ("The loudest noise I've ever heard in an arena," Hall of Fame former Boston Celtic John Havlicek, a spectator, said. "And I've heard some noises.") The finish was so close that all the competitors—Thorpe and Hall in the pool, the others standing on the deck—had to look at the scoreboard to see the result. The howling became a roar of national pride. Both teams broke the world record by more than a second. The Australians finished at 3:13.67, .19 ahead of the Americans. "I doff my swimming cap to Ian Thorpe," Hall said. "He swam a great race. But we swam a great race, too. I've been on a lot of relay teams that have won a lot of races, but this is the best relay team I've ever been on."
"This was the best day of my life," Thorpe said. "This was the best hour of my life. These were the best minutes of my life."
The win sent Australia into a tizzy. IT'S OUR POOL! one headline screamed. Swimming is nearly as important in Australia as the NBA or NFL is in the U.S. The best pool in the world—a $100 million production, built to deep-water, deep-gutter specifications to ensure a still surface and the best chance of records—now had the best home team in the world. And the best home team had the best swimmer in the world.
"I'm pleased I'm one of the few athletes who have performed at their best in an Olympics," said Thorpe. "I've researched that. The statistics are slim, the number of athletes who have performed at their best in the Olympics."