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Crocker favored in 100-meter butterfly final

3/30/2007

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."