Ian Thorpe missed his best chance of qualifying for the London Games when he failed to make the 200-meter freestyle final at the Australian Olympic trials.
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The Thorpedo’s comeback from retirement captured the imagination of the Australian sports public, with his buildup to the trials generating wide media coverage. The five-time Olympic champion’s last chance to qualify for London now is in the 100 freestyle, which has never been his strongest event.
”The fairy tale has turned into a nightmare,” said the 29-year-old Thorpe, who was last out of the pool after his surprisingly slow time of 1 minute, 49.91 in the 200 semifinals on Friday night.
When he retired in 2006, Thorpe was the reigning Olympic champion in the event.
He still seemed stunned when he faced the television cameras within a few strides of leaving the pool, but his gracious reaction sparked an enormous cheer from the capacity crowd of 3,000 at the South Australia Aquatic and Leisure Centre.
Thorpe was 12th fastest among the 16 semifinalists. Ryan Napoleon, swimming in the lane beside Thorpe, led the qualifiers into the final in 1:47.51. Thomas Fraser-Holmes won the previous semifinal and was second-fastest overall in 1:47.57 – still a long way behind Thorpe’s personal best of 1:44.06, the old world record.
Thorpe came out of retirement last year and has worried aloud that he didn’t give himself enough time to prepare for London. After a strong swim in his morning heat, critics and coaches alike thought he’d at least reach the 200 final. Instead of improving in the semis, he struggled to keep up.
”Terribly disappointed with that,” he said. ”I thought I could, and thought I would, swim a lot quicker – much quicker.”
Thorpe was second when they turned at 100 meters but slumped to fifth at the last turn and didn’t look like making up ground.
”The last 100, was a real struggle. I’m not sure why.”
Thorpe plans to ”go for broke” in the 100 freestyle heats Sunday.
He needs to place first or second to earn an individual spot on the Australian squad, or finish in the top six to be considered as a relay swimmer.
A top-two finish won’t be an easy task in the 100 – he’ll be up against world champion James Magnussen and former sprint world record holder Eamon Sullivan.
Another of Australia’s comeback swimmers narrowly missed out in her first bid for spot on the London squad, with reigning Olympic champion Libby Trickett placing third in the 100 butterfly final behind world championship silver medalist Alicia Coutts (57.59) and Jess Schipper (57.88).
Triple Olympic gold medalist Trickett is now targeting the 100 freestyle for a spot on the squad for London 2012.
”I just wanted to go out there and let it go. To come away with third, I’m like ‘so close’ to the Olympic team,” she said, on the verge of tears and holding up her thumb and index finger almost touching. ”That’ll give me more confidence for the freestyle. It’s an open event.”
Trickett, the Olympic silver medalist in the 100 freestyle in Beijing, can earn an individual berth at London by placing first or second in the freestyle, or by finishing among the fastest finishers in the final to be considered for a relay.
”It’s going to be incredibly tough,” said Trickett, who retired in 2009 and returned to swimming last year. ”I’ve just got to go out there and let it flow.”
Christian Sprenger won the 100 breaststroke in 59.91, the fastest time in the world this year, to edge world-record holder Brenton Rickard into second place in 1:00.13.
”Stroke felt awesome,” Sprenger said. ”To go under 60 was my aim. We’re strong competitors and we’re going to take it overseas.”