Crocker favored in 100-meter butterfly final

Updated: March 30, 2007, 11:18 AM ET
Associated Press

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Ian Crocker hardly comes across as someone who might get in the way of swimming history.

Quiet and contemplative, the pasty-skinned native of Maine would just as soon talk about antique cars (he loves fixing up his 1971 Buick Riviera), the latest book on the nightstand ("Heat" -- the memoir of a man's journey through the culinary arts) or playing the guitar (check out his podcast of the Gershwin tune "Summertime").

But Crocker also happens to be the one guy on the planet who can make an underdog out of Michael Phelps.

It's Crocker -- not Phelps -- who holds the world record in the 100-meter butterfly.

It's Crocker -- not Phelps -- who will be the top seed Saturday night when the two swimming behemoths have their one and only head-to-head showdown at the world championships.

If Phelps is going to take down Mark Spitz, he's going to have to get by Crocker first.

"It is what it is," said Crocker, whose the only swimmer to break 51 seconds in the 100 fly -- and he's done it three times. "We are teammates, but I remember when I first started swimming, my coach told me, 'It doesn't matter who's next to you. It could be your mother, but you're not friends when you get behind the blocks.' I've carried that with me since I was 8 years old."

Crocker holds seven of the top 10 times in this event, including the world record of 50.40 seconds. Phelps has the other three spots on the list.

They eased through the semifinals on Friday night, with Crocker taking the top spot at 51.41. Swimming right alongside, Phelps finished third in the heat and fourth overall at 51.92, good enough to send him on to the final.

Phelps, though, was clearly conserving energy for his last race of the night, when he hit the water first for the Americans as they set a world record in the 800 freestyle relay.

"I didn't think he was going to put in all that much tonight," Crocker said, realizing that his teammate will be a lot tougher to beat when it really counts.

Phelps is putting on a remarkable performance at the world championships, winning gold medals in his first five events -- four of them with the fastest times ever. He hopes to have eight gold medals around his neck by the time he leaves Melbourne.

Crocker might have something to say about that.

"Knowing Ian, he'll be thriving under this," Canadian swimmer Brian Johns said. "All eyes are on Phelps right now. There's not a lot pressure on Ian. When the 100 fly comes around, I'm sure he will make a fantastic race out of it."

Crocker won his first world title at Barcelona in 2003, but Phelps bounced back to beat his rival -- by four-hundredths of a second -- at the Athens Olympics. Crocker still remembers where he went wrong.

"I did not swim a smart race, and we all know how that turned out," he said. "I went out with too much adrenaline on the first 50 and I didn't have it on the last 50. I've made that mistake before, but never in that sort of environment. With Michael, if you don't keep your cool, he'll definitely make you make mistakes."

Crocker came back in 2005 to win another world title, setting the record that still stands. Phelps' best time is seventh-tenths slower, and it came four long years ago in Barcelona.

"This gives me sort of a new goal," he said. "Ian and I have raced a few times, and he's sort of had the upper hand since the Olympics."

Even though Crocker hasn't forgotten his Olympic letdown, he insists that it's all behind him now.

"From then on, I was trying to pave new ways," he said. "That's what I did in Montreal, what I want to continue to do. It's not necessarily about making up for anything. I don't feel like I have anything to make up for. It's the same as it's always been: I'm trying to forge new ground."

Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, doesn't expect Crocker to be the least bit concerned about playing the bad-guy role at the next Olympics, when he might be the one who has the best chance of denying a fellow American the chance to break Spitz's record of seven gold medals in 1972.

"It don't think that's really in his decision-making process," Bowman said, referring to Crocker. "He wants to be the guy who wins a gold medal. That's the way it should be. That's the way the game is played."

Phelps came close to Spitz's record in 2004, winning six golds and two bronzes in Athens. He plans to swim the same eight races in Beijing, knowing that Crocker likely will be his most determined, capable opponent.

"I'm sure Ian has accepted it," American backstroker Aaron Peirsol said. "It's not like this is the first time it's been this way. Certainly, he's never folded before. It's been a while since Ian, on his best day, has been pushed. On Ian's best day, he's very, very hard to beat.

"But Michael is swimming extremely well. It's going to be interesting. I know Ian will be ready, that's for sure."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press