- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 18, 2004

ATHENS — Now this was a duel in the pool — the world’s two greatest swimming powers going head-to-head for more than seven minutes at the Olympics.

And it all came down to Klete Keller holding off Ian Thorpe and finishing off the Australians with a lunge for the wall that gave the Americans a gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle relay.

By 13-hundredths of a second.

With Michael Phelps leading off last night, the United States bested its rival from Down Under in the most thrilling race of the Athens Games. Phelps earned his third gold medal of the Olympics, having won the 200-meter butterfly about an hour earlier.

The 19-year-old started things right for the Americans in the relay, building about a one-second lead, but this one will be remembered for Keller’s gutsy swim against Thorpe that sent 10,000 fans into an uproar.

“This race will go down as one of the greatest in history,” said Phelps, who helped the Americans avenge the loss to Australia four years ago in Sydney. “I was like, ‘Come on, Klete! Hold on! Hold on!’ I knew Klete would come through. His swim was the reason why we won that relay. He held off the fastest 200 freestyler in history.”

Phelps and the other U.S. swimmers, Ryan Lochte and Peter Vanderkaay, hopped up and down on the deck as Keller dug for home. When he touched first — his hand just ahead of Thorpe’s — Phelps showed more emotion than he has at the entire Olympics. The teenager threw up his arms and screamed “Yeaaahh!” toward the jubilant American contingent in the stands.

“I don’t think I’ve ever celebrated like that in my entire life,” Phelps said. “They’ve owned that race for so long.”

Keller pulled himself out of the water and joined his teammates in a raucous hug. A dejected Thorpe walked over and shook hands with Keller.

“It hurt,” Keller said. “I could see [Thorpe] coming up. But when I was breathing, I saw my team going crazy — and that really kept me going.”

A night earlier, the 200 freestyle — a duel between Phelps, Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband — was touted as the most anticipated race of the Olympics. It was the only head-to-head individual race between Phelps and Thorpe, but the American finished a distant third despite beating his personal-best time by six-tenths of a second.

For pure drama, it didn’t come close to matching up to this one.

Phelps led off against Aussie star Grant Hackett; Thorpe — adorned in black from head to toe — finished up with his furious pursuit of Keller. It was the second-closest 800 relay in Olympic history, topped only by the Americans’ margin of four-hundredths of a second over West Germany at the 1984 Games. Coincidentally, the U.S. coaches showed their team a tape of that race beforehand, hoping to buttress the importance of finishing strong.

It must have worked. The Thorpedo came up short, the Americans winning with a time of 7 minutes, 7.33 seconds. The Australians settled for silver in 7:07.46, while the Italians were more than four seconds back in third.

“I tried to put my head down,” Thorpe said. “It was a good last 50 for me and a great one for Klete. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite get there.”

In the 200 butterfly, Phelps held off Takashi Yamamoto to win in an Olympic-record 1:54.01. The hard-charging Japanese swimmer took silver (1:54.56), while Britain’s Stephen Parry won bronze (1:55.22).

Halfway through the eight-day swimming meet, Phelps has three gold and two bronze medals. He had hoped to challenge Spitz’s record of seven gold medals from the 1972 Munich Games, but that effort ended with third-place finishes in the 400 free relay and 200 free.

Thorpe is having another superb Olympics, with three gold medals and one silver.

The Americans added to their medal haul when Amanda Beard took silver in the 200 individual medley. The three-time Olympian earned the fifth medal of her career behind Ukraine’s Yana Klochkova, who defended the title she won in Sydney with a time of 2:11.14.

Beard made her move during the breaststroke portion and finished in 2:11.70. Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe earned bronze, her second medal of the Games.

“I’m not a great freestyler,” Beard said. “If I didn’t have my breaststroke leg, I wouldn’t be here.”

Camelia Potec of Romania won gold in the 200 free, coming from behind in an outside lane to beat Federica Pellegrini, a 16-year-old Italian. Solenne Figues of France took bronze, while American Dana Vollmer was sixth, just behind world-record holder Franziska van Almsick.

The Americans’ relay win was a much-needed salve after the disappointment of managing only a bronze in the 400 free relay, won by the South Africans in world-record time two nights earlier.

Phelps gave the Americans a 1.01-second advantage against Hackett. Lochte stretched the lead a little more against Michael Klim, and Vanderkaay — with the best 200 of his life — handed off a 1.48-second cushion with his swim against Nicholas Sprenger.

The Aussies held Thorpe for the anchor leg, and he quickly closed in on Keller. The Thorpedo knocked off nearly a second through the first 100, and made the turn for home virtually even with the American.

But Keller had a little more in reserve than Thorpe, who swam the 100 freestyle semifinals earlier in the evening. That proved to be the difference.

“I’m not saying Ian died, but I had enough of a lead to hold on,” said Keller, who won the first gold medal of his career.

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