The ‘smash ‘em like guitars’ race is now part of Australian sporting folklore but here’s the story of the terrifying anxiety the four swimmers went through.
The ‘smash ‘em like guitars’ race is now part of Australian sporting folklore but here’s the story of the terrifying anxiety the four swimmers went through.

Revealed: How Ian Thorpe nearly cost us our greatest gold

The celebrations were already in full swing after Australia's historic victory in the men's 4x100m freestyle relay at the Sydney Olympics when the four swimmers who had teamed up to win the gold suddenly had a sinking feeling.

Michael Klim, Chris Fydler, Ashley Callus and Ian Thorpe had perfectly executed their masterplan to beat the Americans but in the euphoria that followed, they began to fear the worst.

Caught up in all the excitement, Thorpe spontaneously hoisted himself out of the water to join his teammates on the pool deck the moment he got his hands on the wall before his American rival Gary Hall Jr.

He had left the water before the last placed team had finished the race - potentially breaching one of swimming's oldest technical rules - and Klim was nervous.

"We probably would have actually got disqualified because we pulled Thorpey out of the pool just behind the blocks," Klim said.

"He didn't exit the pool as you're supposed to, but I think there would have been a third world war if we got disqualified."

Thorpe and Fydler were also nervous, but for a different reason.

To beat the U.S. - who were faster on paper - the Australians had to make up as much time as they could on the changeovers but it was a risky strategy because if anyone went a fraction early, the team would be disqualified.

They had all cut it fine but Thorpe's mind was playing tricks on him when the scoreboard blacked out and the judges began reviewing the tape before posting the official results.

"I jumped out of the pool pretty quickly but the results still have to be officiated so you never know," Thorpe said.

"We get the relay changeovers down to such a fine art so every swimmer in the team would have been worried."

Less than a minute later, the official results were revealed.

 

Todd Pearson, Michael Klim, Ian Thorpe & Bill Kirby of Australia
Todd Pearson, Michael Klim, Ian Thorpe & Bill Kirby of Australia

 

That old rule preventing swimmers from leaving the pool early had been scrapped before Sydney and the Australian changeovers had been perfect.

Australia had won the gold, setting off a fresh wave of celebrations.

"There's always that nag but fortunately it came up pretty quickly," Fydler said.

"Then it was pandemonium. We just went crazy … and we celebrated appropriately."

That race - on the first night of competition at the Sydney Olympics - is now part of Australian sporting folklore but the terrifying anxiety the four swimmers went through at the end underlines the fine line they had to tread to get the gold.

Klim, racing against Anthony Ervin, gave the Australians the perfect start when he broke Alexander Popov's individual 100m world record on the opening leg, stopping the clock at 48.18 seconds, though he didn't realise straight away.

"I did have a feeling I was going pretty quick but everything happened so quickly when I touched the wall," Klim said.

"I couldn't tell because my vision's not great but I had both Chris and Ian confirm that it was a world record and Alex gave me a nod from across the lane."

Fydler swam the second leg. The oldest member of the relay competing at his third and final Olympics, he had a surprise in store for the Americans.

Master coach Doug Frost, who was put in charge of the Australian relay team, had been studying the American's split times closely and devised a strategy he thought could win against a team that was faster on the clock.

"The Yanks are always fast but they go out hard and don't finish as strong so I told our guys not to spin the wheels and they'll get them at the end," Frost said.

"That's the thing about swimming, races aren't won at the turn, they're won at the wall."

In swimming's equivalent of Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope knockout of George Foreman, Fydler was told to ease off on his first lap to encourage his opponent Neil Walker to push hard early and take the lead.

Then Fydler made his move on the second lap, powering past Walker to maintain Australia's advantage at the halfway mark.

"The reason we won that race was not because we had the fastest swimmers but because all four of us, each in our own ways, we swam perfectly," Fydler said.

"I felt very comfortable from the first stroke but I was really just concentrating on setting it up for the turn so in that last 25m, I was able to just empty the tank.

It’s the most famous swimming race in Australian sporting history
It’s the most famous swimming race in Australian sporting history

Callus, competing at his first Olympics, sealed his place in the final after a shootout with Todd Pearson and Adam Pine in the morning heats and was sent in against Jason Lezak, America's greatest relay swimmer, adopting the same strategy Frost gave to Fydler.

"Lezak was a big bugger and he reeled me in really quickly," Callus said.

"Coming out of the turn, I just dropped the hammer on my legs and said 'let's go'.

"Big guys like Lezak tend to tire pretty quickly and I knew that I had plenty to go so I just upped my stroke rate and went as hard as I could and gave us a very skinny lead which was just enough at the end."

Few people gave Thorpe much hope of holding off Hall on the anchor leg. The American was a sprint specialist and Thorpe, just 17 at the time, had already won the 400m gold earlier in the night and almost missed the relay because the zip on his bodysuit broke.

Hall sailed straight past him and was comfortably in front when they turned for home but Thorpe had plenty in reserve.

"The American team were blindsided by what we were doing. They like to lead at every part of the race, they have the same strategy at every Olympics, so we knew how to swim to put them off," Thorpe said.

"I always knew I was going to be behind but I was amazed at how quickly it happened but at the 50m mark, I actually had a really good turn and it was the first time I hadn't lost any ground so I knew it was back in the race."

It was only in the final few strokes that Thorpe got past Hall, getting his hand on the wall first by just 0.19 seconds, but enough to win the gold and break the world record.

"I tell people in sport if you generally love sport go for the champion because the amount of pressure is considerable compared to that of the underdog," Thorpe said.

"If you like gambling go for the underdog because they're going through a lot less than the champion is to get there.

"We had both up against us, we weren't as fast as the Americans but the expectation was that we were."

Originally published as Revealed: How Thorpe nearly cost us our greatest gold


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