Adelaide: Five-time Olympic champion Ian Thorpe passed the first major test in his comeback when he progressed through the heats in the 200-meter freestyle on Friday at the Australian trials for London 2012. After just one swim, Thorpe has the leading Australian coaches convinced he's ready to rise for the big occasion.
The screaming from the crowd started the moment the five-time Olympic champion stepped onto the blocks in lane seven and didn't stop until he'd finished in a dead-heat for second place in heat seven to ensure he'd advance to the semifinals.
He led through the first three laps before slowing over the last 50 meters to finish equal with David McKeon in 1 minute, 49.16 seconds.
That was tied for the fifth-fastest time going into Friday night's semifinals. Ryan Napoleon won that heat and was the fastest qualifier for the semifinals in 1:48.27.
"It's a pretty decent time," said the 29-year-old Thorpe, who will be aiming for a spot in Saturday's final when he next races. "I'm happy with that swim."
Thorpe's personal best is 1:44.06 from the 2001 World Championships, which stood as a world record for eight years — from 2001 to 2009— and remains the Commonwealth and Australian records.
Most of the focus on the Australian trials is on The Thorpedo, who announced his comeback last year after deciding to retire in 2006. He was the reigning 200 and 400-meter freestyle Olympic champion and had set 13 individual world records before he quit, citing fatigue, fading interest and a desire to study. He burst onto the international scene a teenager with size 17 feet in 1999.
His times since returning to competition late last year have been modest and have led some critics to say he has been "foxing," or swimming slower than he's capable of just to keep the competition guessing.
Before the Australian trials, where he's also swimming the 100 freestyle and must finish first or second in the 100 or 200 to qualify for an individual spot at London, he said he hadn't had the luxury of foxing and was as nervous now as he was ahead of his first Olympics at Sydney in 2000.
His best chance of qualifying is as a relay swimmer, which means he has to finish at least in the top six in the finals and gamble on selectors giving him a chance.
Australia head coach Leigh Nugent said he's started seeing glimpses of Thorpe at his peak.
"Ian had to test himself out a bit today, the early stages of the race," Nugent said. "I thought he looked very good. He's such a magnificent freestyler.
"The next hurdle is to get through the semifinals, then it's fair dinkum after that."
Nugent isn't counting Thorpe out of Olympic contention, saying he'd had to "slap my wrist" for doubting him at the 2004 Olympics before he won the 200 freestyle title in a field of top contenders.
"You should never doubt this guy," Nugent said. "He's a class above everyone else as a 200 and 400 freestyler."
Nugent said the fact Thorpe posted the fastest 100-meter split on Friday morning was "probably him saying 'I'm here, and I'm someone to be reckoned with."
"His demeanor is different now," compared with recent months, Nugent said. "It's the business end now and that's what he likes.
"When it really means something, that's when (top athletes) lift. Those people are highly stimulated by this kind of competition. There's nothing more enticing than going to the Olympic Games, so they rise to the occasion."
Thorpe has dispensed with the sleek, black full-length bodysuit and was wearing only knee-length swimming trunks on Friday, showing off a trimmed-down but still hulking physique.
He has plenty of competition from younger contenders in the 200, with McKeon upsetting Napoleon on the opening night of the trials to win the 400 freestyle and 20-year-old Thomas Fraser-Holmes — the fastest 200 freestyler in Australia last year — smashing the national record to win the 400 individual medley on Thursday night.
Fraser-Holmes had the eighth-fastest time of the 16 semifinal qualifiers in the 200 heats in 1:49.22.
In other Friday morning races, Emily Seebohm, an Olympic medley relay gold medalist, glided through her 100-meter backstroke heat in 1:00.90. Australian champion Belinda Hocking was the quickest qualifier in 59.89.
"There's no point going too hard in the heat when I have so many events," Seebohm said. "I obviously saved some in the tank."
Reigning Olympic champion Leisel Jones was the third-fastest qualifier in the women's 100 breaststroke semifinals in 1:08.33. And Kylie Palmer led the qualifiers into the 400 freestyle semifinals in 4:09.12.
Three-time Olympic gold medalist Stephanie Rice, the so-called golden girl of the 2008 Beijing games, secured the first spot on the Australian swimming team for London when she won the 400 IM in 4:33.45 on Thursday night.
Rice had surgery to repair a damaged tendon in her right shoulder last year and struggled to regain her form. She was only fourth fastest in the heats but was too strong from the start of the final.
"It's the biggest relief — the biggest weight lifted off my shoulders," Rice said. "To be able to say now, 'I'm going to London,' is such a huge relief."
Rice had her shoulder strapped on Friday morning but her coach, Michael Bohl, said it was precautionary to "keep her body posture in a line a little more."
"Her shoulder pulled up a little bit sore from last night — nothing bad," Bohl said. "Nothing untoward. She was happy with what happened last night and she's gearing up for the 200 medley tomorrow."
Updated Date: Mar 16, 2012 11:00 AM