Ian Thorpe was just 14-years-old when he was selected to swim for Australia.
He was the youngest man ever to be included in one of our national sporting teams and in the four years that followed schoolboy Thorpe achieved phenomenal success on the world stage.
By the year 2000, he was 18-years-old and went into the Sydney Olympics under intense and highly visible public pressure to win. And win big.
The Daily Telegraph ran a photo of Thorpe on their front page, with a banner headline screaming INVINCIBLE below it. News reports called him Australia’s great hope for a substantial medal haul. Our sports-loving community was desperate to see Aussie athletes succeed at an Olympics on home turf.
And succeed he did; winning three gold medals and two silver in Sydney.
Like the rest of Australia, I watched Thorpe on TV back in 2000; giving poolside interviews after his races. I remember thinking he handled the media so incredibly well. Cool, calm, collected and softly spoken. Just the right mix of confidence and excitement without sounding up himself.
It wasn’t until I was older that I realised this was no accident.
Outstanding swimming talent and conversational eloquence aren’t necessarily a natural match. Thorpe, and his teammates, had been trained very well to perform in front of the press. No matter how shy, retiring or introverted these champions were naturally – significant effort and preparation went into ensuring they could put on an affable and confident show for the media.
When our athletes are young, talented and show potential for success, our community invests a huge amount of time and effort in them. They have coaches for their minds as well as their bodies. They have teachers and trainers and scientists and physios and media minders and therapists and nutritionists and sponsors and managers and publicists.
But it wasn’t until recently that people were hired whose job it is to think about what happens to these same athletes when it’s all over.
To think about what happens when the adrenaline stops racing, the crowds stop cheering and there is no grumpy phone call asking why you haven’t shown up for training at 4am.
The presumption is that athletes will move to a career in coaching, commentating or TV presenting. And if that’s not your forte, you quietly disappear from public view; to be left fumbling around for something that fills the void left by your sporting passion.
But does that have to be the case?
It was confirmed yesterday afternoon that Ian Thorpe, 31, has been checked into a rehabilitation hospital after he was found by police and ambulance officers disoriented near his parents’ home in South Sydney.
His battle with depression, which he has spoken about publicly, continues to haunt him and his transition from the world of professional swimming to the next stage of life hasn’t been a smooth one.
Clearly, there are many things at play for Ian Thorpe personally and I recognise that mental health issues are or never caused or ‘cured’ by any single factor.