Ian Thorpe began his long and lonely return to the pool a year ago this month. He understands the solitary nature of elite sport better than most professional athletes, and describes its impact with layered elegance, but even Thorpe was jolted by the isolation he felt as he prepared to swim competitively again in Singapore last November. After four years in retirement, his five Olympic gold medals and famous old Thorpedo racing persona meant nothing as he climbed on the blocks.
"I've never felt more alone than in that moment," Thorpe says simply. "The water is normally my space – because I get quite territorial. But I realised that, despite all my training, I was about to put myself back out there as a competitor. I was surrounded by people but I still had this intense loneliness. Sport can sometimes isolate you and I've come to realise through all the travelling and all the hotel rooms that there is this recurring Lost In Translation moment."
It's typical of Thorpe, and an example of why he is so interesting to interview, that he should refer to Sofia Coppola's film amid his explanation of a difficult sporting comeback. In Lost in Translation, Bill Murray plays the part of a fading actor who suddenly confronts his acute loneliness and alienation in a Tokyo hotel. Thorpe, however, has ended up in far darker and more frightening places.
The 30-year-old's attempt to swim for Australia at this summer's London Olympics ended in disappointment. Yet set against his depression, which he has revealed for the first time in his stark but powerful new book, Thorpe's return assumes fresh meaning. "In terms of making the Olympics it was a complete failure," Thorpe concedes, as he reflects on his non-selection, "but I've rediscovered what I loved about my sport when I walked away from it, loathing it. I find such beauty in the repetition of training – in its rhythms and rituals. I had lost that. But, even if I prefer training to racing, part of me wants performance. It's less about winning than turning in a performance that matches my preparation."