Pacific Rim Swimmers of the Millennium: Ian Thorpe and Leisel Jones Make It an Aussie Sweep

With the COVID-19 pandemic canceling the most-important competitions of the year, Swimming World made the decision to suspend its Swimmer of the Year selections for 2020. There simply was not enough data to legitimately honor individuals as World, American, European, Pacific Rim and African Swimmers of the Year. Instead, we decided to name the Swimmers of the Millennium for the first 20 years (2000-19) of the 2000s.

In the first few years of the 2000s, Ian Thorpe was already dubbed by many as the “Swimmer of the Century”— even if it was only a few months into a new millennium. But it was with respect.

At just 17 years old, “The Thorpedo” had already broken seven long course world records across the 200 and 400 freestyle—all before he could walk into a pub in his hometown of Sydney and legally buy a drink. And leading into a home Olympics in 2000, you could almost pencil in Thorpe’s name on the back of the 400 freestyle gold medal.

In the 400 final, Thorpe did just that, beating the field by nearly three full seconds to take nearly a full second off the world record to 3:40.59. About an hour later, he stepped up on the blocks again, this time to anchor Australia’s 400 freestyle relay team.

There was much hype around the race leading into the Games, as the United States team had never been beaten in that relay at the Olympics. Australia elected to lead off with its veterans in Michael Klim and Chris Fydler, and would anchor with their new superstar and face of the Games in Thorpe.

Thorpe dove in ahead of American Gary Hall Jr., who was a gold medal favorite in the 100 freestyle. Thorpe had been known as more of a 400 guy, so it would take the swim of his life to outswim the speedy sprinter Hall.

But as the Thorpedo flipped at the 50 of his leg, the Sydney crowd rose to their feet. Their 17-year-old hero had found another gear, and the Aussies were going ballistic in hopes of seeing the American streak snapped in their home country by their men in green and gold. As the pair raced toward the wall, Thorpe got his hand on the wall first, raised a fist in the air, and climbed out of the water to celebrate one of Australia’s greatest sporting achievements even to this day.

Thorpe had become a national hero, and his legacy was seemingly already cemented as one of the greatest ever.

But in order to become a legend with your “peaks,” you must also have to become a legend with your “valleys.” And two days after Thorpe won two gold medals in one night, he had suffered his first defeat in nearly two years when he was outswum by Pieter van den Hoogenband in the 200 free final.

This sparked a friendly rivalry between the two, with Thorpe getting the better of van den Hoogenband over the next three years, and by 2004, Thorpe had won the anticipated rematch with his Dutch rival as well as a budding superstar in American Michael Phelps.

All in all, Thorpe broke 13 individual world records from 1999-2002, and his best times in the 200 and 400 freestyle would still be Olympic-title contending today, his effort in the 400 free still the best textile time in history.