'A driven part of me loves elite performance and I may be able to capture that again'
Ian Thorpe began his long and lonely return to the pool a year ago this month. He understands the solitary nature of elite sport better than most professional athletes, and describes its impact with layered elegance, but even Thorpe was jolted by the isolation he felt as he prepared to swim competitively again in Singapore last November.
After four years in retirement, his five Olympic gold medals and famous old Thorpedo racing persona meant nothing as he climbed on the blocks.
“I’ve never felt more alone than in that moment,” Thorpe says. “The water is normally my space – because I get quite territorial. But I realised, despite all my training, I was about to put myself back out there as a competitor. I was surrounded by people but I still had this intense loneliness. Sport can sometimes isolate you and I’ve come to realise through all the travelling and all the hotel rooms that there is this recurring Lost In Translation moment.”
It’s typical of Thorpe, and an example of why he is so interesting to interview, that he should refer to Sofia Coppola’s film amid his explanation of a difficult sporting comeback. In Lost in Translation, Bill Murray plays the part of a fading actor who suddenly confronts his acute loneliness and alienation in a Tokyo hotel. Thorpe, however, has ended up in far darker and more frightening places.
The 30-year-old’s attempt to swim for Australia at this summer’s London Olympics ended in disappointment. Yet set against his depression, which he has revealed for the first time in his stark but powerful new book, Thorpe’s return assumes fresh meaning.
“In terms of making the Olympics it was a complete failure,” Thorpe concedes, as he reflects on his non-selection, “but I’ve rediscovered what I loved about my sport when I walked away from it, loathing it. I find such beauty in the repetition of training – in its rhythms and rituals. I had lost that. But, even if I prefer training to racing, part of me wants performance. It’s less about winning than turning in a performance that matches my preparation.”
Such purity ensured Thorpe resumed training as soon as his stint as a BBC commentator at London 2012 ended in August. He plans to swim at next year’s World Championships in Barcelona and at Glasgow’s 2014 Commonwealth Games – while possibly continuing two years beyond that at one last Olympic Games in Rio. Following the return of a former great sportsman is always poignant but, with Thorpe, there is a sense that swimming also provides a refuge from depression.
“There are some mornings when, if I didn’t have the routine of training, I would struggle to get out of bed. But, when you get to training, all of a sudden things seem a little better. Of course racing can bring about increased pressure. But when I’m racing I usually manage my depression and anxiety really well. The pulse of anxiety is appropriate then. It’s just more troubling on ordinary days.”
Thorpe thinks carefully before he answers most questions. And his pause is especially considered when asked to describe his worst days of depression. He eventually offers a telling account which uncovers the extent to which depression can be physically, as well as well as psychologically, debilitating.
“It’s like a weight is pressing down on you. There are days when you just can’t get out of bed. You cannot face the world. You tell yourself simple things like: ‘Just get to the kitchen and get a glass of water.’ But not being able to do something so basic is frightening. There were lots of times where I just could not bear to leave the house. You actually scour the cupboards for food . . . If there’s nothing in the cupboards you just don’t eat.
“Sometimes this feeling lasts just days. Other times weeks. But you learn to identify the triggers. You can start to minimise the length of your depression. I realise now when I start to withdraw from doing things with my friends I need to force myself. My doctors say [Thorpe emits a dry laugh]: ‘Fake it till you make it.’ So even if I don’t feel like going out with my friends I know I need to. It’s tough but, once you’ve forced yourself, it doesn’t seem so bad and you can minimise the low.”