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Ian Thorpe

Ian Thorpe celebrates his win in the 200m freestyle. (Getty Images)

Ian Thorpe: our greatest Olympian

Last Updated: Tuesday, August 17, 2004. 3:00am (AEST)

Ian Thorpe became the most successful Australian in the history of the Olympic Games when he won the men's 200 metres freestyle in Athens early this morning.

Thorpe trailed Pieter van den Hoogenband at every turn but took the lead after surging with 30m to go.

The Australian held the Dutchman off to hit the wall first in a new Olympic record time of 1:44.71 minutes, 0.65 seconds outside the world record he set at the 2001 World Championships.

The win gave Thorpe his fifth career Olympic gold medal - more than any other Australian - and avenged his loss to van den Hoogenband in Sydney four years ago.

Van den Hoogenband claimed silver in 1:45.23 while American Michael Phelps took bronze in 1:45.32. The USA's Klete Keller finished fourth with Australian Grant Hackett fifth.

When asked after the race how it felt to make history, Thorpe told Channel 7 he was more focused on the task at hand.

"I don't know if I look at it that way - that was a pretty awesome swim and I'm just pleased I swam well in that race," he said.

The result gave Thorpe the chance to strike back after van den Hoogenband upset him in the same event in Sydney.

"I said to him after the race - now we're even. I think in Beijing it might be another tough race for me and Pieter," he said.

Thorpe said he was always confident he would swim the Dutchman down, even though van den Hoogenband led for the first three laps.

"He's a sprinter, I've got more of a distance background. I thought I should be able to but just because you should doesn't always mean that you will."

For Thorpe, the result stands as a fitting riposte to those critics who had claimed he had not been the same swimmer since his switch from Doug Frost to new coach Tracey Menzies.

"I think it justifies my decision. It also means the success that I've had here is greater than what I had in Sydney. I'm really pleased with all of my results. It's just been a tough preparation but the other side [is] I've seen success."

It was Thorpe's second individual gold medal of the Games, coming after his victory in the 400m freestyle on the opening night of competition.

Van den Hoogenband was philisophical in defeat. "I swam my own race, my way, but in the last 25 metres it went wrong, although it was great to swim in such a historical race," he said.

"Ian just told me 'every time we race you're killing me' and I told him that now we were even," said the 26-year-old from Maastricht.

"Only one man can win - the best one, and that's Ian Thorpe."

The race also ended Phelps's dream of matching the achievement of compatriot Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals at the Munich Games in 1972.

But the 19-year-old remained upbeat. "How can I be disappointed? "I swam with the two best freestylers of all time, and I was right in there with them.

"It's my best time and a new American record," added Phelps. "Coming in, I just wanted to race those two guys and I did. And I had fun doing it."

Australia has now won four gold medals in the pool in Athens, more than any other nation.

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