Phelps settles for bronze in 200 free

Originally Published: August 16, 2004
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- Ian Thorpe touched the wall, pumped a fist in the air and let out a yell that all but said, "Take that!"

Two lanes over, Michael Phelps was draped over the rope, huffing and puffing as he looked at the scoreboard.

Phelps' improbable pursuit of Mark Spitz is over, Thorpedoed by the man in black.

Thorpe thwarted Phelp's attempt to take home seven gold medals, winning the 200-meter freestyle Monday while the kid from Baltimore was relegated to bronze for the second night in a row -- a medal to be savored, for sure, but not the color he needed to catch Spitz.

With his long arms churning smoothly, his enormous feet kicking furiously, Thorpe passed Pieter van den Hoogenband in the homestretch, finishing with an Olympic record of 1 minute, 44.71 seconds. The Dutchman's time was 1:45.23 -- good enough for silver.

Though Phelps swam the fastest 200 of his life, it wasn't enough in this ballyhooed showdown.

"How can I be disappointed? I swam in a field with two of the fastest freestylers of all time, and I was right there with them," the 19-year-old Phelps said.

Spitz will remain at the pinnacle of swimming, the guy who won seven gold medals -- all in world-record time -- at the 1972 Munich Games. Phelps has one gold and two bronzes so far, and the chance to win five more medals _ but the race with Spitz is over.

"I tried to do something he did, and I didn't do it," Phelps said. "I'm already successful. It was a great opportunity I had, something I'll always remember."

Phelps challenged Thorpe on his own turf -- the 200 is one of the Aussie's signature events. But the Thorpedo, wearing the full black bodysuit that has become his trademark, wasn't about to let this one slip away.

Van den Hoogenband, the defending Olympic champion, pulled off a shocking upset of Thorpe four years ago at Sydney. The Flying Dutchman got a quick start and was more than 1 second under world-record pace at the halfway point, but he couldn't maintain it. When it was over, Thorpe and van den Hoogenband smiled and quickly clasped hands.

"I said to him, 'I guess that makes it one-all. I hope to see you in Beijing,'" said Thorpe, who won the fifth gold medal of his career and second of the Athens Games.

Phelps was third most of the way, setting an American record of 1:45.32.

Exhausted, he clung to the lane rope, watching a replay of the race on the video board. Finally, he came over to congratulate his two rivals, then turned to swim out of the pool on the opposite side.

Even though he'll fall short of Spitz, Phelps has plenty of swimming left in Athens. He returned to the pool just 52 minutes later for the semifinals of the 200 butterfly.

"Now," Phelps said, "it's just come out and try to swim as fast as I can."

Spitz has said he doesn't mind losing his record -- in fact, he predicted Phelps would do it -- but the mark is safe for at least another four years.

Phelps also lost out on the $1 million bonus offered by a sponsor if he could match Spitz's record. For the first time, Phelps conceded he was thinking about the money. He is, after all, a teenager who loves tricking out his car stereo system and buying all the latest hip-hop records and video games.

"It was on my mind," Phelps said. "It definitely was, to have a number like that thrown out there."

Phelps got off to a good start in his pursuit of Spitz, opening the Olympics with a world-record performance in the 400 individual medley. But he settled for bronze when the American team faltered in the 400 freestyle relay on Sunday.

Phelps could still win six gold medals. But because his audacious challenge fell short, he could be remembered as something of a failure at the Athens Games -- the same perception that dogged Matt Biondi after he won "only'' five golds at the 1988 Seoul Games.

"Will it crush him? No," said Debbie Phelps, the swimmer's mother. "He's already got a page in the history book.''

Phelps is the greatest all-around swimmer in the world, and he didn't really need to swim the 200 free at the Olympics. But he knew it was his only chance to face Thorpe in an individual event, so the challenge was issued.

Phelps had nothing to be ashamed of, breaking his personal best by more than six-tenths of a second. A great swim. Just not good enough.

"Michael is capable of going home with eight medals," Peirsol said. "In this day and age, that's fantastic. It's the Spitzian feat of our time."

An Olympics that has been plagued by poor crowds didn't have any worries on this night. The 10,000-seat pool was packed: orange-clad fans cheering on van den Hoogenband; Thorpe's supporters distinguished by their yellow and green attire; Phelps' backers waving American flags, big and small.

The fans rose to their feet as the giants of the sport emerged from the ready room, heading to their starting blocks.

In the end, the Thorpedo held off Hoogie and the teenager -- and ensured that Spitz's record will live on.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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