It's a two-man race, and then some

Phelps set to chase Thorpe in 200 free tonight, but don't forget van den Hoogenband


Athens Olympics 2004

August 16, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

ATHENS - Bob Bowman, horseman and coach of Michael Phelps, entertains the media every morning at the Olympic Aquatic Centre.

Phelps chases Australian Ian Thorpe in tonight's 200-meter freestyle, one of the most appealing finals in the history of Olympic swimming. Asked to equate the showdown to a horse race, Bowman mentioned the 1938 classic at Pimlico Race Course between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, but added that this isn't a match race.

Thorpe is the world-record holder and Phelps is the most versatile swimmer on the planet, but the defending champion has much to do with this being billed the "Race of the Century."

Four years ago in his hometown of Sydney, the event was supposed to be a crowning achievement for Thorpe, but he was taken down by Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands. The Dutchman has resurfaced, ready to claim his own place in history.

Phelps' prospective achievements were shaken by a bronze medal in last night's 400 freestyle relay, but, at the least, he is expected to leave these Games as only the second man to win three individual swimming events in a single Olympics. Thorpe or van den Hoogenband can become the 11th to hit that total in their careers.

Thorpe is idolized Down Under, Phelps has become a cover boy in the United States and van den Hoogenband has cachet in Europe.

"I don't like the attention," van den Hoogenband said. "He [Phelps] can have all the attention. I don't want to crash his party. I just want to do my best."

Van den Hoogenband posted the fastest time in the semifinals of the 200 freestyle. Thorpe and Phelps went 1-2 in the other semifinal. They will flank van den Hoogenband tonight, but the field doesn't stop there.

Grant Hackett, another Australian, was the world-record holder before Thorpe, van den Hoogenband and then Thorpe again lowered it eight times in the past five years. Klete Keller has battered Phelps' American record in the 400 twice in the past month, and wants to show he has 200 speed, too.

Phelps, 19, acknowledged the rest of the field but contributed to the mano a mano atmosphere by seeking out Thorpe, whose skepticism over his rival's chances at matching Mark Spitz looked wise last night.

"Michael is one of the most talented athletes we have seen," said Thorpe, 21. "I'm very supportive of his quest to achieve seven gold medals. I think the risk there is, is that anything short of that will be deemed a failure. I don't want to see that happen."

"I wanted to race Thorpe before either of us is done," said Phelps, the North Baltimore Aquatic Club swimmer from Rodgers Forge.

The two aren't exactly graybeards. Their combined age is 40, but with tactical ability beyond their years. That asset could shape a race in which everyone's strength comes from somewhere else.

Van den Hoogenband prefers the 100, which he showed with history's second-fastest split in the 400 freestyle relay. Thorpe hasn't lost a 400 since 1997, and won his second Olympic title at that distance Saturday night. Hackett is the best 1,500 man ever.

"It won't be a race where just the best person wins," Bowman said. "Who's planned the race? Who does the best turns? Who doesn't stay on the blocks and watch the other people dive in?"

Those last two comments were digs at his own swimmer. Phelps is a bit of a neophyte in this race. He'll face a mammoth test tonight, trying to rebound from last night's relay disappointment, but the 200 freestyle has been known to produce some shocking outcomes, as van den Hoogenband and his boyhood hero can attest.

The Dutchman looked up to American Matt Biondi, who in 1988 was the last to attempt a program like Phelps'. Biondi was third and West Germany's world-record holder Michael Gross didn't even medal when little-known Australian Duncan Armstrong produced a shocker.

Phelps also will swim the first two rounds of the 200 butterfly today. In the first two rounds of the women's 200 individual medley, Katie Hoff will attempt to come back from a painful Olympic debut.

The 15-year-old from Abingdon and NBAC came into the 400 individual medley with the world's fastest time of 2004 but couldn't advance to the semifinals.

Phelps' competition in the 200 freestyle

Grant Hackett, Australia, 24. He held the world record in 1999, but distance freestyle is more his forte. Hackett is expected to defend his Olympic title in the 1,500.

Pieter van den Hoogenband, Netherlands, 26. The Dutchman managed to quiet a nation in 2000, when he wrested the world record and Olympic title from Thorpe, Sydney's favorite son.

Klete Keller, United States, 22. A dark horse, Keller finished second in the U.S. team trials behind Phelps. He won his second straight bronze in the Olympic 400 Saturday.

Ian Thorpe, Australia, 21. Thorpe's world record is 1:44.06, but he hasn't been under 1:45 in the past two years. He is motivated by the memory of his 2000 Olympic loss to van den Hoogenband.

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