- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 17, 2004

ATHENS — He is still a masterful swimmer, arguably the world’s best, and a likely candidate for enshrinement on a Wheaties box. But there will be no equaling of Mark Spitz’s record, no million-dollar bonus, no transcending the sport that he has worked so hard to lift from relative obscurity.

Maybe next time.

Beijing beckons. For now, Michael Phelps’ quest to equal Spitz’s mark of seven gold medals in a single Olympics is over, dashed last night in a fast and furious 200-meter freestyle race that saw Phelps break his own American record, yet still finish third behind Australia’s Ian Thorpe and the Netherlands’ Pieter van den Hoogenband.

“I had an opportunity to do something that [Spitz] did, and I tried to match it,” said Phelps, who captured a second bronze medal to go with his 400-meter individual medley gold. “But I didn’t. It’s an honor winning one gold medal. It’s a great opportunity that I had and always something I’ll remember.”

Thorpe reaffirmed his mastery of a race in which he holds the world record, becoming the most decorated Australian in Olympic swimming history with a Games-record time of 1:44.71. Van den Hoogenband, the defending Olympic champ, finished in 1:45.23, just ahead of Phelps’ 1:45.32.

When it was over, Thorpe stripped off his cap and goggles and raised a fist. As the other swimmers filed out of the pool, Phelps drifted to the far corner, alone, looking at the Aquatic Center scoreboard.

Though the 19-year-old from Baltimore was slow to leave the water, there was no time to sulk: He was back in the pool just 46 minutes later, swimming in the 200-meter butterfly semifinals. Phelps still has a shot at five more golds — two in relays and three in individual events, including today’s 200-meter fly and 4x200-meter freestyle relay finals.

“How can I be disappointed? I swam in a field with the two fastest 200-meter freestylers of all time,” Phelps said. “And I was right there with them. I don’t have a chance to swim against them in normal American meets. It was fun.”

Of Phelps’ five individual races, this was the longest shot. Thorpe’s world record of 1:44.06 was nearly two seconds faster than Phelps’ previous best, and van den Hoogenband upset Thorpe at the Sydney Games. Together, they owned the five fastest times in history.

“We had to hope the other guys would come back to him a bit,” said Bob Bowman, Phelps’ coach. “[But Michael’s time] was right on my expectations. That was the gold-medal time in Sydney.”

After the national swim trials last month, Phelps and Bowman discussed dropping the event from his Olympic program. Phelps declined. The most versatile swimmer in a generation, he wanted to test himself against Thorpe — the Aussie freestyle ace who raised the profile of swimming in his country with a stroke that is so sound, so smooth that Phelps watched tape of it “a hundred times” when he was a 15-year-old up-and-comer at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.

Phelps saw — and felt — Thorpe in person two nights ago, swimming behind the Australian in an adjacent lane during the 4x100-meter freestyle relay final.

“The first thing I said to Bob was, ‘Wow, he makes some big waves,’” Phelps said. “They were crashing into me. He’s got an unbelievable stroke. It’s pretty to watch.”

The race was billed as the marquee meeting of the Games. Beyond Thorpe, Phelps and van den Hoogenband, American Klete Keller and Australia’s Grant Hackett lurked as medal contenders.

They took to the deck with a roar from the crowd: Phelps wearing his signature headphones, laying a towel on the starting block, wiping it clean, stretching his hamstrings against the edge; Thorpe adjusting his goggles, legs bouncing, raising a single, regal hand to a group of Australian fans.

Phelps was in the third lane, Thorpe in the fifth and van den Hoogenband in between. All three barreled down the final leg, churning. With 25 meters left, the outcome became clear: Thorpe and van den Hoogenband were just out of Phelps’ pterodactyl reach.

So, too, was Spitz and a promised, much-publicized $1 million payout from Speedo for matching Spitz’s record.

“How can you say no to that?” Phelps said as a joke after the race. “It was in my mind, definitely, to have a number like that thrown out there. But there are more opportunities down the road.”

Indeed. Phelps is just 19. He still can become the most successful American swimmer since Matt Biondi, who won five golds at the 1988 Seoul Games. He can improve his starts, his turns, mature into his lanky frame. He has the world and time.

Oh, and Speedo’s offer? It extends to 2008.

“I think Michael swam this race because he wanted to challenge himself,” Thorpe said. “I hope we do it again in Beijing. It would be a great race.”

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