Scoop Review of Books

Following a Black Line

This is Me: The Autobiography, by Ian Thorpe
Reviewed by Jim Robinson

You don’t have to reach far into this book to realize that while he has rare talent, Ian Thorpe has also had demons. Two pages after the title page (the title itself is surely a hint) there’s a quote:

There is no need of any competition with anybody. You are yourself, and as you are, you are perfectly good. Accept yourself.

It’s not the kind of thing you’d expect to kick off an autobiography of a bloke who’s won 11 World Championship titles, 10 Commonwealth Games gold medals and five Olympic Games gold medals (plus three silvers and one bronze).

No need of competition? Accept yourself? Gee. Even a non-swimmer like me knows the guy’s been a game-changer. The Thorpedo.

And yet. World records and gold medals and all, Thorpe’s struggled. He’s seen the black dog of depression. He’s used “self medication with alcohol” to calm his fears and silence his questions. He’s shut off. Hidden the truth of “my lonely battle to understand what life was about and how to fit in”.

Thorpe’s comeback to swimming, after a four-year absence, didn’t get him to the 2012 London Olympic Games as he’d hoped, let alone to another medal. But, far more important, it did turn his life to the better. “I thought I could walk away from swimming and never go back,” he writes, “but now I’ve realized that I need to swim.”

Before that, he expresses it even more simply: “swimming has been my salvation”.

This book is end-to-end candid. Thorpe (aided in authorship by Robert Wainwright) ticks off all the big boxes: family; media intrusion; religion; politics; poverty; drugs.

Drugs. I really thought he might dance lightly over this one, as he faced more than one accusation of artificially boosting his performance. But he’s open. And better, he’s angry. “It was the biggest insult anyone could throw at me because it questioned my core values as a person,” he writes of a suggestion he was on synthetic human growth hormone, HGH, before the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000.

Of course, being on the outer, you can never tell for sure, but it certainly feels genuine — like the truth.

He also talks at length about media obsession that he’s gay. Maybe that was only an Australian thing, as I’d missed it, but Thorpe recalls some pretty unfair situations, starting from when he was still a teenager. For what it’s worth, he notes that he’s not. But, he admits, “I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to avoid relationships because I have a complicated personality and it isn’t easy to find someone who fits comfortably with me or me with them.”

He talks too about his Fountain For Youth charity, which aims to help deliver opportunity to aboriginal children — which he started when he was 18-years-old. Kudos. He’s got some real fire about the dire situation many aboriginal people face. You can’t help but think, there’s a big future here.

Through it all, there’s endless focus on and through the water. The dive, the turn, the hand, the body position, the elbow, the legs, the $20,000 competition swim suit, the track of the mind on kilometer after kilometer of following a black line. He admits he’s “a quiet participant obsessed by self-improvement”. I don’t enjoy swimming, let alone pool competition, but this stuff really held me.

Okay, it’s not a perfect book. The chapters essentially take you through key points in his comeback. These each open in the present tense, before flicking into the past to recall past events or to make observations. Then, next chapter, it’s back to a new, more recent present. In places, the transitions are forced and uncomfortable.

There’s also repetition of a few fairly noticeable facts and phrases, such as 105 kilos making him heavy for an elite swimmer, which I found a bit irritating; and at one stage there’s confusion between (drugs) HGH and EPO. But in the bigger picture, that stuff’s train-spotting. This is an excellent read. A really excellent read — and no need to be a swimmer.

If this is Ian Thorpe, and no reason to doubt, I like him. He’s not a bit big headed. He’s intelligent, altruistic, tortuously self-analytical, pained. Fascinating mix. I suspect it would have been a heck of a lot easier for him to write a different book, one all of games and gold medals, but this one’s much better. I just hope he continues to find salvation in the water.