Comeback Junkies

by Casey Barrett

He left the press conference for his more famous friend. The one who had more gold medals than any countryman before him. He had a few too, was also among Australia’s all-time greats, but by comparison, his news didn’t feel all that newsworthy. Another comeback. By another Olympic champion. Welcome aboard, Michael Klim. The comeback trail is crowded these days, packed with aquatic icons who can’t quite stay away…

When Ian Thorpe announced his intentions, it was sponsored by Richard Branson, as the Virgin mega-mind used the Thorpedo’s return as a fine opportunity to announce Virgin Blue’s latest international route. (You didn’t think Thorpe was actually going to train for London in Abu Dhabi, did you?) When Michael Klim announced his own comeback, he chose a bit less corporate pomp. His venue? A comedy radio show, with a handful of local TV news cameras crowded into the studio.

Eleven years ago at the Sydney Games, these two were elevated to god-like stature Down Under. I remember an office tower in downtown Sydney whose entire 50 stories on one side was covered in a long picture of a pool, with Thorpe and Klim, along with (the still retired) Susie O’Neill swimming up lanes stretching hundreds of feet into the air. (Just one example; probably plenty…) Now, three Games removed, their legend-status engraved for all-time, these Aussie gents are hooked again, and they’re not alone.

Stateside, have a look at the list of confirmed comebackers back on the sauce: Janet Evans, Brendan Hansen, Anthony Ervin, Ed Moses. And those are just the Olympic champs back in the mix. Rumors have swirled about an Ian Crocker comeback. (Still no official paperwork filed, according to USA Swimming…) And at the risk of starting a rumor, word is that Aaron Peirsol has yet to file his retirement paperwork. Perhaps leaving a door to Trials slightly ajar…

Across the pond, France’s drama-soaked freestyle queen, Laure Manaudou, is immersed in a comeback of her own. England’s ageless sprint ace, Mark Foster, is said to be contemplating another crack at it on home soil. And who could blame him? He’s the male Brit version of Dara Torres. Both obscenely ripped sprint specimens who should not be allowed to look so mockingly good into their 40’s.

Maybe it’s Torres who’s to blame for all these second acts. Did she make it look too damn easy? Would anyone be surprised to see her on the blocks in London too? She’ll be 45 next summer. Back in 2000, a 15-year-old Michael Phelps used to call her “mom.” A dozen years later, Missy Franklin could refer to her as “grandma.”

Should this spate of comebacks be christened ‘Torres Syndrome’? Surely, the thought must have crossed Janet Evans’ mind as she considered her return to competitive waters. Evans was twice the swimmer Torres was. No comparison. Back in 1988, when Janet was the greatest female swimmer on the planet, Torres was a relay swimmer, earning a single bronze as a member of the women’s 4×100 free. There’s no question that Torres has been a compelling example for all these folks. The question is – what kind of example has she set?

You read about these comebacks and the lines are all the same. It’s for the love of the sport… The fire still burns… I have unfinished business… I wanted to be a part of the Olympics just once more… Or as Klim put it recently to Craig Lord of Swim News: “We’re all doing it for the same reason: swimming was a big part of our lives and we still feel it.”

But what is it that you feel? Because this culture of comebacks sounds an awful lot like a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, a crew of relapsed junkies who just happen to be hooked on a drug of pure Olympism. It’s hard to imagine two more polar opposite clans. The heroin addict and the Olympic champion. At distant ends of the spectrum of society’s respect. One group, pitied and reviled, the other, praised on the ultimate sporting pedestal. Yet at the extremes, we always find similarities…

Consider: For both groups, the junkie and the Olympian, the “it” is two-fold, and exactly the same. They miss the high, for one. And as good as a heroin high must surely feel, it can’t compare to the high of standing on top of an Olympic podium. But that’s only part of it. The bigger part, the essential part, is about the lifestyle. It’s a common refrain among ex-addicts. They talk of the purity of purpose, of the single-mindedness that gets them through each day. Where the rest of the world has daily to-do lists, headaches to confront and check off each and every day, the addict has only one concern: how to continue the high.

As does the swimmer back on the Olympic trail. All those worldly concerns that invaded your life after retirement? Your job, your family, your bills. Back on the backburner! Because as each of these comebackers knows, as every swimmer who’s ever appeared in any Olympics knows, getting to the Games demands total sacrificial commitment. To the point of setting aside the rest of your life and acknowledging it for what it is – distractions. Distractions that get in the way of the one thing you care about more than anything else… That high. That feeling of invincibility, of total bliss, when there is nothing but the now, nothing but the passion to get what you need, what you’ve had before, and what you must have again…

Junkies are reviled, and rightly so, because their need and their bliss is self-destructive and false. Olympians, at the other end, are praised because that same need is believed to come from a pure and true place. They are not destroying their bodies, but elevating them to ultimate levels of perfection. But the motivation, the drive, the personality is all too similar.

Years ago, when Aussie great Susie O’Neill (remember, the one on that Sydney building not making a comeback?) retired, a reporter asked her what she would miss most about swimming. Her answer was honest and heartbreaking. She said: “I’ll miss never being the best in the world at anything else ever again.”

That’s a hard addiction to kick. As her fellow Olympic champions, now immersed in comebacks, know all too well…