BATH, England (Reuters) - James Guy idolized Australian great Ian Thorpe as a boy and now Britain’s 200 meters freestyle world champion hopes to inspire a new generation of swimmers when he makes his Olympic debut in Rio this August.
The 20-year-old is one of the big hopes of a revived British team as winner of two golds and a silver at last year’s worlds in Kazan, Russia, in the same discipline that the ‘Thorpedo’ once dominated.
Speaking on Thursday after Team GB announced a 26-strong swim squad, Guy reminisced about that first Olympic memory that fired his imagination.
“In 2004, the ‘Race of the Century’, watching (Dutch defending champion Pieter) van den Hoogenband, (American Michael) Phelps and Thorpe doing the 200 free. That was something special,” he smiled.
“I remember Dad saying ‘Oh, there’s a new American guy on TV’. I was like ‘Who is he, never even heard of him before. I bet he’s crap, isn’t he?
“Dad said: ‘He’ll beat Thorpe in the 200’ ‘He won’t beat Thorpe’. ‘He will’. I remember watching the TV and screaming and screaming and Thorpe won. Thorpey was my hero.”
Phelps, now the most decorated Olympian of all time with 22 medals from three Games including 18 golds, won six titles at Athens in 2004 while still a teenager. He had won four golds already at the 2003 world championships.
Thorpe, then the 200m freestyle world record holder, had been the most successful male swimmer at the previous 2000 Games in Sydney.
In Russia last year, Guy took the 200m title that Thorpe won in 2001 and 2003 as well as the 4x200m relay gold. He also took 400m freestyle silver. In 2014 he won Commonwealth Games gold in the 4x100 medley.
The 200m freestyle in Rio could be another classic battle.
Asked whether he felt young kids might watch him swim there with the same wide-eyed excitement that he had shown all those years ago, Guy nodded.
“That’s pretty special. I want to inspire the next generation, want to grow the sport in the UK,” he said.
“This year is a big swimming year for us, I want people to get involved as well and watch us compete because it is the biggest year of our lives.”
The awe of competing against the big beasts of swimming has faded, however, for a swimmer who describes himself as an ‘animal’ in the water.
Kazan marked the moment that Guy knew he had arrived.
“There was (American Ryan) Lochte and (China’s) Sun Yang (alongside). I was like ‘Oh My God, this is sick’. Now I don’t see it as that any more,” he said. “They are good friends now and we race each other.
“You’re in the pool, someone’s beside you and it’s just a bigger meet. That’s all it is. I don’t see them as kind of my heroes any more. But obviously I respect what they’ve done. To be part of that and race with them is a complete honor.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ian Ransom