EIGHTEEN months ago, Ian Thorpe would sneak around Sydney, training in different pools, hiding from prying eyes that might have prematurely revealed his comeback. In the year since he made his announcement, he has again been out of sight, training on the other side of the world. Today, there will be no place to hide.
We have seen the slow results, we have heard about the aura being back, seen the loss of weight, heard the talk about potential failure and seemingly every former great has given his or her opinion. None of that matters any more. It's now all about diving in, and seeing how much of a shadow of his former superstar self Thorpe still is.
A little after 11am today, in the seventh of nine 200-metre freestyle heats at the Olympic trials, Thorpe will climb onto the unfamiliar lane seven starting block, dive in and swim for about one minute, 50 seconds, and we will get a gauge as to whether this thing has a chance of ending in jubilation or disappointment. The first goal is to finish in the top 16 and advance to tonight's semi-finals, then back up and finish top eight to make it into tomorrow night's final. Then it will be game on.
National coach Leigh Nugent has been there since the beginning. He was the one who - while in Delhi at the Commonwealth Games - took a call from Thorpe who told him: ''I'm considering swimming again.''
''I didn't really know what to expect,'' Nugent said yesterday of Thorpe's journey. ''He's probably lost 20 per cent of his body weight and you notice the dramatic change physically with him. The first training session we did, he swam 1100 metres - it was pretty slow - now he'd probably swim 2000 in the same time. I think with the difference I saw in him in the entire preparation - not that I've seen him that much since he's been in Europe - is that he came to Perth with a different demeanour. It's the business end of the preparation, he's done what he can, he can't fit any more in.
''It's obviously much harder to come from a period of such big space [between retirement and comeback] and start all over again but you have to admire him doing it. He was always a great trainer, this time he wanted to adopt a different training approach, and I think we're going to see whether that has worked or not.''
Nugent was asked whether, considering how difficult it has been for Thorpe, would making the team be comparable to any of his previous successes, perhaps even Olympic victories? ''He hasn't done this before. He's won Olympic gold five times, so you can compare those things, but this is whole new territory for him.''
Nugent admitted the old Thorpe aura of confidence was evident in Adelaide, and he isn't the only one who has noticed. Some of his rivals in the 200 have also felt his presence. ''When you see him around [the] pool deck there is a big aura about him and you can see why, he's a big fella,'' said one of the favourites for the 200, Thomas Fraser-Holmes.
''But I don't read to much into that. He's just another swimmer I've got to race against.''