Five-time Olympic gold medallist Ian Thorpe has recently been working on Bullied, a television series looking at bullying in schools. The retired swimmer, 34, talks to me about how he became involved in it, his own struggles, the surprising place he keeps his gold medals and his plan to bring an extra million people to swimming by 2020.
Tell me about Bullied.
It’s a TV show I have been filming for the last six months … We meet with kids that are being extremely bullied … We give them undercover cameras – in their backpacks, pencil cases and things like that – so it shows what they go through … When I started this, I knew that I care about the kids but I didn’t know that I would start feeling personally responsible for what happens for them, and how to fix this.
What made you get involved with the show?
I was asked if I would do it and the first question, to my agent, was, “Was he bullied?” and my agent was like, “Have you seen the size of him?” [laughs]. But … sometimes yes, I was [bullied], not in a significant way, like these kids were, but I realised that there had been some times that I had.
Could you relate to the bullying issues they had from any personal experiences?
Yes I could and I knew what it feels like when you literally isolate yourself …Even before I was “out”, people would yell homophobic slurs and things at me. That didn’t happen all the time, but it did happen from time to time.
What advice did you give to the kids?
I didn’t really … It was important for us to have the kids come up with the solutions, rather than us tell them what we knew. But there was a lot of prompting to kind of get them to come up with those solutions.
What else have you been working on?
I was doing a lot around the Olympics and then, also, we have kind of created a program called Junior Dolphins on swimming. So we have the goal of being able to bring an extra million people to swimming by 2020. What we have tried to do with that program is create the fun and social sides of swimming, rather than it just being about training and [competition].
Do you still swim?
No I don’t … I had surgery and I had to have a shoulder replacement. So I knew before that, I wouldn’t be able to swim. But what I have been doing is working with a trainer in the gym to learn how to recoup other muscles because I am really quite frustratingly close, so I can swim a few strokes, I can swim a little bit. But it is not the kind of swimming that I enjoy. I wouldn’t be able to do lap after lap after lap.
Do you miss the pool and swimming?
Yes. If you’re told that you can’t do something, you really want to do it. I would love to be able to get in the pool and do a few laps, rather than having a jump on a treadmill, that’s what I like. I also find, if I am swimming, if I am worried about something or feel a bit stressed out, all of my concerns seem to fade away with the ripples of the water.
Do you miss the competitive side of it?
No I don’t. I am kind of a weird athlete in that I always enjoy training more than the competition … My best swimming and the part that I love the most was in training, and it was kind of finding ways to refine what I was doing.
Do you see yourself as a role model? And if so, do you take that responsibility seriously?
I like trying to be the best person I can be. That’s not for other people, it is for myself. I kind of think that you should be the change in the world that you hope to see, and you should do that each day. If you do it everyday, you get a lot more out of your life.
Where do you keep all your gold medals?
In a bank vault.
You don’t keep them on display?
It’s insurance – it’s [a] ridiculous kind of cost … Occasionally I get them out, if I do a school visit or something. Then the kids can have a look at my medals.
Is your career focus now in media?
It’s all sorts of things. I do some ambassadorships for different companies, Star is one of them … I try and do one or two TV projects a year, and then the other thing I do is kind of corporate and motivational speaking … I also find time to really involve myself in causes that I think are important, so usually around human rights issues.
What human rights issues are you most interested in?
There is a program called AIME, which is Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience … they use university undergrads to mentor an Indigenous high school student through school. They have in the high-90s success rate in doing that.
What makes you so passionate to speak out about marriage equality?
To me, I struggled to come out, and … I realised what kind of impact that will have on young people to say, “The way that you are feeling is equal to anyone else” … They may feel like they are the only one in their town, and I don’t want young people to go through that.
You say it was a struggle to come out. What was the most difficult aspect for you?
I was first asked about my sexuality when I was, I think, 16. I was too young to know. And then because I denied it … Then because it’s kind of an accusation, you think of it in the negative. I never thought how enriched my life would feel, how much better my life would be [to come out]. I didn’t think that way. I come from a conservative family. I didn’t know how they would feel about it … I thought they would be OK but I didn’t know until I told them.
So you didn’t even tell your family?
No. For me, it was harder to come out to my family than it was to everyone else because I felt that I was kind of just living a lie and I didn’t think it was that important to me. I didn’t realise the impact that it would have, and how much it had really taken out of me as well.
Have you felt a big impact in your life since you have come out?
The funny thing is when you do come out, you think, “Oh that wasn’t such a big deal” [laughs] … Over a number of years you build it up to be this enormous thing but I found it liberating that I was able to live an authentic life that I wanted … Most people were like “Yes, we don’t care” and that was a really great response to have.
Do you have plans to get married one day?
Well, you can’t ask that question because it is completely hypothetical, and I don’t think I should answer it until I have the right. But I would like a family; I would love to have children as well. Not now, but soon enough.
Bullied airs in two parts on March 14 and 21 at 8.30pm on ABC.
We went to Balla at the Star
We ate Zucchini flowers stuffed with buffalo mozzarella and truffle pecorino, macadamia crumbs; Salumi cured meats serves with Balla grissini
We drank Still mineral water
Ian wore Giorgio Armani
I wore Bec & Bridge