Rewriting The Legend
Director Gregor Jordan captures the man behind the sporting legend with his documentary ‘The Swimmer’ which reveals the struggles of Ian Thorpe both in and out of the pool.
"The film opens with him swimming by himself at Waverley College pool," director Gregor Jordan tells us about his documentary, aptly titled, The Swimmer. "The pool's in the middle of the suburbs, there are leaves in it; he's completely by himself training. It was just him and I on this incredible day where there was no wind whatsoever and it was overcast and there was an almost electric atmosphere in the air. I was really struck by the fact that what's happening there in front of me has nothing to do with fame, gold medals and money. It's just a guy who really loves swimming and is doing it just because he enjoys it. I guess that's why I came up with the title The Swimmer, because, at the end of the day, Ian Thorpe is a lot of things, but what he is most of all is just that."
The man can certainly paint a picture. But within the first few minutes of talking to Australian filmmaker Gregor Jordan (behind such films as Two Hands, Ned Kelly, Buffalo Soldiers, and who tested his documentary skills with 2010's Sunsets: Powderfinger Farewell Tour Live in Concert) about his latest project, it becomes apparent that The Swimmer is about much more than a guy who enjoys the odd lap or two. Chronicling Ian Thorpe's failed attempt to make the Australian Olympic team in time for the London games, it is the story of a man coming to grips with where he is in his life; a life that has played out in front of the cameras despite the sport star's guarded persona and heightened sense of self-consciousness.
"People don't really understand the person as well as they think they do. Knowing Thorpey like we know him, you notice a very different public perception of him compared to what he's like in real life," Jordan claims, collectively referring to his wife, actor Simone Kessell, who produced the documentary, and worked with Thorpe on the short-lived Undercover Angels. "The challenge for us was to try and get him to feel relaxed and normal in front of our camera and show the Thorpey that we know: a guy who's moody, funny and shy."
An obvious contradiction therefore arises. Why would a man known for his quiet, reserved demeanour allow a director and his crew to follow him around during what was arguably the most demanding period of his life? Jordan bases the origins of the project on the simple notion of friendship. "My wife has been friends with Ian for a long time and I've come to be good friends with him as well," Jordan reveals. "I guess it was just that close personal relationship that enabled the whole thing to happen."
Given the film's subject matter, it should come as no surprise that Thorpe himself claims he felt "uncomfortable" while watching the "very confronting" film. "To Ian's credit, he was happy with it," Jordan relays. "He thought, ‘Okay, it's not flattering' but he's smart enough to recognise that, by being unflattering, it's ironically flattering. By showing people your flaws and failings, you're presenting a much more human side of yourself."
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this tale is the fact that is lacks an uplifting ending; a determined underdog who wins out against all odds, thus differentiating it from most other sports documentaries. But Jordan prefers not to pigeon-hole it, and sees it merely as the story of an athlete and his craft. "I found it an interesting story of human frailty," he recalls. "It's about 'de-mythologising' the myth that sporting stars aren't normal people. They are. They're complicated, layered human beings."
Indeed, all signs point to this film separating public perception between the athlete and the human being, and Jordan credits most of the interpersonal elements of the film to the fact that there was no set script to work with. By not knowing where the film was going to end up, he was able to sit back and let the fascinating narrative compile itself. "We didn't know what the hell we were doing when we started out," he chuckles. ‘If we did have [a script], it would've been about him making the Olympic team and winning a gold medal. But the story obviously changed so for us it was a journey of discovery as it was unfolding. It wasn't until we got to the end that we had a sense of what we'd compiled. We realised that this was much more a story about Thorpey as a person than it was about Thorpey as a hero.'
Despite the undesired outcome of Thorpe's training, though, Jordan recognises a redemptive quality to the story. "If you're looking for a positive out of this, the irony is that, despite failing to make the team, he's fallen in love with the sport again," he emotes. "I actually think it's a happy ending, weirdly. Okay, he didn't win a gold medal but he's become a happier person. It's quite ironic but kind of cool at the same time."
The Swimmer airs Sunday July 15, 7:30pm on ABC1.