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Thorpe, 17, makes a splash in his first Olympic race


SYDNEY, Australia - He's a kid and a national hero, a swimming phenom with large hands, size-17 feet, and almost otherworldly speed.

Followed by cameras, lauded by fans, and burdened by expectations, Australia's Ian Thorpe is the undisputed star in waiting at the 2000 Summer Olympics.

This 17-year-old carries the hopes and aspirations of the home country out to display its dominance in the pool.

He has the nickname ("The Thorpedo") and the pedigree (two world records) to become a global household name.

But it all depends on his performances at these Games.

It should be awfully hard to handle so much adulation and pressure. Yet as Thorpe approached his Olympic debut in today's 400-meter freestyle - he won his qualifying preliminary today in 3 minutes, 44.65 seconds, breaking an 8-year-old Olympic record - he appeared to serenely ride above the waves of fame.

There are some days he wants to be like any other kid, when he wants to get away from it all.

But it's difficult to slip by unnoticed when you're the country's most recognizable teen, your face plastered on everything from billboards to breakfast cereal boxes.

"The best thing and the worst thing are actually the same things," Thorpe said. "I think it is being recognized everywhere we go - walking down the street and going to the supermarket. Being recognized in that situation - that's fantastic to see that kind of support, but it also can be quite daunting."

Over and over, he answers the same questions, giving little away, appearing humble, saying all the right things, reminding everyone that these are his first Olympics and that he will be satisfied if he performs well. After all, he plans to compete in two more Olympics, all the way to 2008.

He doesn't talk of medals or underrate rivals.

"I'm determined to get the best out of myself," he said. "That's why I get up at 4 a.m. every day to see how hard I can train and what I can do."

It all seems too good to be true. But Thorpe appears to be as natural handling adulation as he is breaking records.

"I was recognized at 14," he said. "I think that's a reflection on how Australian society feels about its swimmers. We're held in very high regard and with that support comes high expectations."

None higher than at these Olympics.

"I'm looking forward to swimming in front of Australians," he said. "But it could be overwhelming. I just have to deal with that and control the things I can control."

He took up the sport at age 8 because he was bored watching his sister Christina race. But he needed to overcome an early allergy to chlorine before he could show his speed. At 9, he was signing his first autograph for his elementary school teacher. By 15, he was swimming's youngest world champion, claiming the 400 title at Perth in 1998.

He's 6 feet 5 and weighs 209 pounds. But the key to his success is an enormous stroke length of 8 feet, 8 3/4 inches and his large feet that churn the water. He hasn't just broken records; he smashed them over and over, lowering the 200 freestyle by 1.16 seconds and the 400 free by 2.47 seconds.

He said he still thrives on the dedication needed to compete in the sport. When he trains, he sings to himself, usually the melody from the last song he heard on the radio before practice. He also thinks and tries to solve the world's problems.

"I haven't come up with any more solutions yet," he told the Sydney Morning Herald. "Maybe by the end of my career."

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