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Australia rocks to Thorpe

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SYDNEY, Australia - As long as they swim for medals at the Summer Olympics, they'll remember this night, when a 17-year-old kid with flipperlike feet took his sport and his country on a remarkable journey.

They'll remember how he humbly accepted success, how he appeared to be so cool and calm when, all around him, the crowd was screaming. And they'll look back in wonder and try to understand how a kid so knowing and talented could pack a lifetime of aspirations into what just might be the Olympics' finest hour.

Last night, Ian Thorpe of Australia won two gold medals at the Summer Olympics.

He won with a world record of 3:40.59 in his specialty, the 400-meter freestyle, overwhelming a field that was racing for second.

And he won again, about an hour later, tugging on his suit as he came out to the starting blocks and anchoring an Australian 400-meter relay team that set a world record of 3:13.67 and staged one of the big upsets in Olympic history.

Australia left the United States, which had never before lost the event in Olympic competition, in second place.

But it was how Thorpe won the last sprint that sticks in the memory.

He had to come back against America's best racer, Gary Hall Jr., a strapping sprinter with an electric shock of blond hair and a brash attitude who made a pre-Games prediction that the Americans would "smash" the Australians like guitars.

In a last-lap, matchup sprint for the ages, there was Thorpe, his big arms whirling almost as if in slow-motion, gaining with every stroke, and there was Hall, fighting to the last, a frenetic engine that couldn't.

Thorpe touched first, Hall second.

The Australians went wild. The American swimmers stood on the pool deck, too stunned to speak as the crowd's shriek turned into a tidal wave that rolled right down from the heavily banked stands.

"It would have to be the best day of my life, best hours of my life, best minutes of my life," Thorpe said after it was over.

Thorpe reigned on a first night of swimming that surpassed all expectations. His world records were two of five set. The U.S. women crushed the record in the 400-meter relay to take gold, and the Ukraine's Yana Klochkova took more than a second off the record in the women's 400 individual medley.

Australian Michael Klim's record in the 100-meter leadoff leg became an afterthought in the relay defined by Thorpe's duel against Hall.

It was an Olympic moment, the kind that thrusts a regional star onto a global stage. Thorpe is big in Australia, where his face is plastered on billboards and his exploits are followed by many of the country's 19 million citizens.

But now he's beginning to be known around the world, the tale of a kid from Sydney, with a mother who is a schoolteacher and a father who is a gardener.

Australians adore him, not only for his ability, but also for his soft-spoken grace. During the post-race news conference, Olympic volunteers were wiping away tears as Thorpe humbly said, "To be able to dream and fulfill those dreams is the best thing any individual can do."

Some say he was born to swim.

But just because he is tall and rangy, with long arms that pull him through the water faster than any middle-distance racer ever, and size 17 feet that create a whirlpool, doesn't necessarily mean he's "The Natural."

He trains hard, blocks out distractions and has uncommon maturity, all striking features for a boy who was only 15 when he was proclaimed the swimmer of the century by Australia's coach, Don Talbot.

During the pre-Olympic buildup, he had to remind everyone that he had never been to the Games, that all he wanted to do was race fast and race his best.

"I'm one of the few, one of the select few, who have performed at their best at the Olympics," he said at the end of his first Olympic night.

And he tried to recall the night before all it slipped away, the walk onto the pool deck for his 400 race, the roar of the crowd that he said sounded like "the gladiators walking into the Coliseum."

He wouldn't say it, but there was a sense he knew he was going to win the 400. He had coasted in the prelims, wearing a pair of trunks and racing methodically to claim an Olympic record.

But in the evening, he was serious, his body covered by a suit, the yellow cap tugged low on his brown hair. He obliterated the field, leaving Italy's Massimiliano Rosolino second and America's Klete Keller third, almost seven seconds behind. In swimming, that's the distance between Sydney and Los Angeles.

"I finished the race," Thorpe said. "I didn't know what to do. I felt this energy rush inside me."

He pulled himself out of the pool, prepared for the medal ceremony, then smiled and sang his national anthem while an Australian flag was draped over a shoulder.

And then he headed for the locker room. Most thought it would be the end of his night. But there was a buzz in the stands that he would come back for one more race, anchoring the relay.

When the teams marched out onto the deck, four Americans strutted to their places. But there were only three Australians - Klim, Chris Fydler and Ashley Callus. And then there was Thorpe, who needed 10 minutes and four assistants to push him back into a bodysuit that on the shelf looks as if it might fit a Barbie doll.

"It was very rushed and nerve-racking," he said.

The race was an astonishing blend of speed and heart. Klim bolted out of the blocks and set a world record of 48.18 seconds for the first 100 meters. But the Americans kept up the pressure, as Anthony Ervin chased Klim and Neil Walker and Jason Lezak kept touch with the Australians.

Then it was Thorpe against Hall. Thorpe was given the lead by an eyelash, but Hall was racing hard, taking a quarter-second lead into the final 50.

It should have been over for Thorpe and the Australians. But it wasn't, with the crowd roaring and Thorpe surging.

"The last part of the race was an absolute blur to me," Thorpe said. "I just swam as fast and hard as I could."

So did Hall.

"Well, I went out after it. What are you supposed to do?" Hall said.

It was as if Hall weren't racing against a boy - as if he were trying to beat a torpedo.

Afterward, he said the race "was the best I've ever been in." The Americans finished in 3:13.86, more than 1 1/2 seconds under the old world record, and lost.

"I doff my swim cap to the great Ian Thorpe," Hall said.

The Ian Thorpe Games aren't over yet. He'll race in the 200 freestyle, in which he holds the world record. And he'll be in the 800-meter relay.

But he may never have another night like this, when he was young and the Olympics were new and all Australia seemingly roared for him to win.

And win again.

"In some ways, it went so quickly," Thorpe said. "It happened in an hour."

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