Returning great Ian Thorpe showed a glimpse of his old self as he qualified equal fifth-fastest for the 200m freestyle semi-finals at Australia’s Olympic swimming trials in Adelaide on Friday.
Thorpe produced by far the most encouraging performance of his comeback, clocking one minute and 49.16 seconds to greatly boost hopes of earning a spot on the team for the London Olympics.
It was the quickest time since his return, shaving more than a second-and-a-half off his 1:50.79 at the Victorian championships in January.
After a series of underwhelming swims since returning to competition late last year, Thorpe quickly took control of his heat and led by close to a bodylength at one stage.
He was in front at the final turn but either faded or backed off as fastest qualifier Ryan Napoleon (1:48.27) came home over the top and teenage 400m champion David McKeon also finished strongly to equal Thorpe’s time.
“I’m very happy with the swim,” Thorpe said after the race.
“It was a pretty decent time and I’m happy with that time this morning.”
The performance gives the best indication Thorpe still has what it takes to book a spot on Australia’s London Olympic team after five years spent away from the sport.
However, the 29-year-old must prove he is able to back up in Friday night’s semi-finals.
Athens Olympic 200m champion Thorpe, swimming in his first national titles in six years, will race in the second of two semi-finals from lane three and will need to finish in the top eight fastest times to progress to Saturday night’s final.
There, he requires a top-two finish to book an individual 200m berth in London or top six to be considered as a relay swimmer.
Kyle Richardson (1:48.57) was the second-fastest qualifier into the semi-finals, ahead of Kenrick Monk (1:48.72) and Cameron McEvoy (1:48.89).
Pre-race favourite Thomas Fraser-Holmes qualified eighth fastest in 1:49.22.
Earlier, Belinda Hocking led the way into Friday night’s 100m backstroke semi-finals after clocking 59.89, the second-fastest time in the world this year.
Top-ranked Emily Seebohm was second in 1:00.90.
“It’s not the hardest swim I have ever done but there are still semis and finals so I obviously saved some in the tank,” Seebohm said.
Leiston Pickett (1:06.92) and Sarah Katsoulis (1:08.12) led the way into the 100m breaststroke semi-finals ahead of Olympic champion Leisel Jones (1:08.33).
Defending champion Kylie Palmer qualified fastest for Friday night’s 400m freestyle final in 4:09.21.
Remy Fairweather, 14, was second in 4:10.28 and Bronte Barratt third (4:10.63).
Palmer and Barratt again look set to fight out the final after Palmer scored a narrow victory at last year’s titles.
Ben Treffers (54.59) led the way into the 100m backstroke semi-finals ahead of Josh Beaver (55.46) and Matson Lawson (55.94).
One of the pre-race favourites Ashley Delaney (56.88) was 18th fastest but also went through thanks to two scratchings.
Geoff Huegill will not swim in Friday night’s 50m butterfly final, opting to pull out of the non-Olympic event ahead of the 100m, which starts on Tuesday.
Australian head coach Leigh Nugent was impressed by Thorpe’s swim.
“I thought he looked pretty good,” Nugent said.
“I think Ian had to test himself out a bit today in the early stages of the race, which I think he did a pretty good job at.
“I haven’t spoken to him in detail … but I think it will be the last half of the race where it’s told, the result, and he has a history of being pretty good at that end.
“… He’s such a magnificent freestyler. When we swims against everyone else, and we’ve got so many good athletes here, he’s just a standout.
“Today revealed a bit. We know what he used to swim like and we saw a bit of that again today. We might be in for a treat, who knows?”
Nugent said he expected Thorpe would have to improve by around a second in the semi-finals to progress to the decider.
“I would think 1:48 low will make the final but he probably won’t want to be in (lanes) one or eight. Ian likes to be in the thick of it,” Nugent said.
“For him, it would be terrific if he was in the top four.”
Veteran butterfly swimmer Huegill tweeted: “Watching #Ianthorpe swim today was like watching him swim in 2000. Welcome back mate.”