THORPEDO? AT 17, HE’S STILL A KID

SYDNEY, Australia — I’m sorry, folks. The Human Thorpedo will not be coming out for his news conference.

I will be taking his place.

That’s right. Me. I am taking over Ian Thorpe’s life. The teenage Australian Swim God has given me his blessing. He’s also given me his skills, his speed and his incredible water body.

From now on, I have the size-17 feet. Wanna see?

Aahhhhhhh . . .

Pretty impressive, huh?

All right. I will answer your questions now.

How’s that? Why did the supersonic Thorpe, considered by many until a day ago the most unbeatable swimmer in the world, choose to body-switch with me, a barely buoyant sportswriter with the water skills of an innertube?

Well. I can answer that. You see, Ian realized that being 17 years old and expected to win every Olympic race he enters is too much of a burden. He realized this somewhere during the third lap of the 200-meter freestyle final Monday night.

It was in that race that, despite the two gold medals he won Saturday, despite the fact that he is already on a postage stamp in Australia, despite the impassioned urging of his entire Kookaburra nation — and I mean the people here were standing in front of giant screens in Sydney Harbor screaming “GO, THORPEY, GO!” — young Ian still couldn’t find the little extra push to win.

He looked over and in the next lane was that pesky Dutch guy, always a few inches ahead of him, Pieter van den Hoogenband. Pieter van den Hoogenband? I ask you, what kind of name is that for a swimmer? A name like that should be designing furniture.

But I digress.

He settles for a silver

Thorpe was close the whole race, within a hairsbreadth, and the crowd kept screaming, anticipating his patented kick in the homestretch. It was dead even at the final turn. “GO, THORPEY, GO!”

But when the swimmers touched the wall, it was the Flying Dutchman equaling his own world record and the Thorpedo second by half an arm’s length.

A silver medal.

Now, for most people, that’s phenomenal. For most people, that’s over-the-moon happy.

But not for Thorpey. Suddenly, the Can’t Miss Kid had missed. The five gold medals they talked about would not happen. His parking place in Mark Spitzville had been canceled. The “greatest swimmer ever” — as they had already dubbed him in the victory-drunken Australian press — had suffered an Olympian defeat.

You could hear the arena sigh. You could hear the whole country sigh.

And suddenly it dawned on my boy, the Thorpemeister, that hey, he’s just a kid. He likes rock music. He likes fast food. He lists his favorite actor as Adam Sandler.

The fact that he even thinks of Adam Sandler as an actor should tell you how young he is.

So like a lot of kids his age, he decided it was time to chill. Take a powder. He turned over the whole fame thing to me for the next few days — along with his body — while he hops a skateboard to Bondi Beach.

To quote Al Haig, I’m in charge.

What’s my next race?

Let the kid be a kid

Oh, make no mistake. I’m going to change a few things. First of all, no more endorsement deals. I have enough — I mean, he has enough — money. I’m only
— he’s only — 17. Come on. Having a bank turn my first gold-medal race into a TV commercial just minutes after I touched the wall is too much.

Second, take down those giant posters of me all over Sydney. It’s embarrassing. I don’t even have a date for the prom.

Third, I’m losing this black body suit. It makes me stand out too much. Besides, it’s itchy.

As for my big feet, no more talk of that, OK? So I wear a size 17. So I have natural flippers. So what? Do I tease you about your love handles?

Finally, no more referring to me as “the Aussie legend.” How can I be a legend if I’m not old enough to drink? Wait. Maybe I am old enough to drink down here. What’s the age for a beer in Australia — 9?

Anyhow, no more legend stuff. No more Thorpedo. No more profiles of what I eat for breakfast.

Here’s my deal: I’m a great swimmer. I won two golds, one silver and I have some more races to go. That should be enough. I don’t want to carry a nation. Pick someone else. Go follow Pieter van den Hoogenband. Ask him to make you a bookcase.

That concludes my news conference. I’m concentrating now on helping Australia in the 2×400 relay. I feel good. I feel confident.

And don’t worry that a sportswriter’s instincts are not as competitive as Thorpe’s. I’ve got the kid’s body. I’ve got the kid’s skills. And I’ve got a certain level of maturity that should be of great help.

So off we go!

Uh . . .

How do you get to the pool?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). And catch Mitch’s Olympic TV reports on “The Early Show,” 7-9 a.m. weekdays on CBS (Channel 62 in Detroit).

MEDAL COUNT

G S B TOTAL United States 6 5 4 15 Australia 4 5 5 14 France 4 6 2 12 China 5 1 5 11 Italy 3 2 3 8

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