Phelps shows heart of gold, too

Athens Olympics

Prime time tonight: Track and field, swimming, diving, beach volleyball.

Chs. 11, 4 at 8 p.m.

August 21, 2004|By Laura Vecsey | Laura Vecsey,SUN STAFF

ATHENS - His races have ended the way they began: With a splash and with the goals and the feelings of a friend and teammate equally as important as his own.

That's right, everybody. Surprise!

The Speedo deal, the million-dollar bonus, the magazine covers, the prime-time TV and the endorsement contracts make it easy for Michael Phelps to act magnanimous.

That's different from being magnanimous.

"We came into this meet as a team. We're leaving this meet as a team," Phelps said.

With that pronouncement, Phelps sent a mini-shockwave through the Olympic Aquatic Centre, the place where he had already etched his place in history.

It's a good thing his place in history is secure, because now, thanks to the decision, Phelps won't swim in tonight's 400-meter medley relay - an Olympic race the United States has never lost.

Ian Crocker, the man to whom Phelps lost the 100 butterfly at the world championships last August, the man whose picture Phelps taped to his wall as inspiration, will swim instead.

The announcement came after Phelps won his fifth gold medal. His win in the 100 butterfly earned Phelps a spot on tonight's 400 medley relay team.

It was an amazing twist after an amazing win in the butterfly, where Phelps used his 6-foot-7 wingspan to touch the wall ahead of Crocker.

But with the touch for gold and the relay spot in hand, the machinations cranked into high gear.

Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, initiated a discussion about Phelps' relinquishing his place in the relay. Phelps stands to get a medal, regardless. Still, getting Phelps to give up the water seemed the tough sell.

It may take time to know how much coercion was necessary. For the record, the decision is an ele- gant solution to get Crocker his gold - and to get U.S. coach Eddie Reese off the hook. It has been a tough week of managing relay spots, with U.S. sprinter Gary Hall whipping up whitewater over not being used in the 400 freestyle relay.

No one doubts Phelps' decision was the move of a champion.

We've seen our share of greedy, selfish, self-serving athletes. A few of them are wearing USA jerseys right here in Greece.

But if anyone mistook Phelps' quest to tie or pass Mark Spitz as pure selfishness, they simply did not get to see what went on behind the scenes, in the village, in the training room, on the bus.

"Every time he wins a race or breaks a world record, he has to go to doping, to give a urine test. He's been coming back to the village late and doesn't go to bed until after midnight," U.S. teammate Erik Vendt said yesterday.

"Over the course of the week, it takes its toll. But Michael comes back, and we're joking around. He doesn't talk about what he does at the pool. He just goofs around with us. Poor Katie Hoff. He's been giving her [a lot of teasing] on the bus."

Remember Phelps' first gold medal at these Olympic Games?

He was thrilled for himself, but when he looked up at the board, he saw that Vendt had won silver - in Lane 1.

Remember what he said?

"It was important to start us off going 1-2, to give us momentum going into this meet."

He said it. He meant it. Us.

Remember Phelps' second race of these Olympics?

His friend and friendly rival in the 100 butterfly, Crocker, had a miserable leg in the leadoff spot in the 400 freestyle relay.

The United States came in third. Crocker felt horrible. Everyone wondered out loud:

If Crocker had not had a sore throat, Phelps might have indeed won his seven gold medals; he might have tied Spitz.

Likewise, the buzz was: If only Reese had replaced Crocker with Hall, Phelps might have won that million-dollar bonus from Speedo.

Guess what? Never a word from Phelps on the failed relay. Never a shred of self-pity.

He was, it seemed, a little relieved. The hard part was over. The seven gold medals were no longer possible, unless he upset Ian Thorpe in the 200 freestyle, which did not happen.

"I had an opportunity," Phelps said. "A lot of things are out of my control."

Lesser people would have said something, even just a wisecrack:

Hey, you cost me a million, man.

Not once did Phelps give off negative vibes. He just kept swimming fast and hard, morning and night, to the brink of a medal threshold achieved only once before in an Olympic Games.

Every time Phelps dived into the pool, his intent was to swim fast, to win, but not at the expense of the people he knows helped get him to this amazing place in history.

Swimming is a lonely, solo sport? Not the way Phelps plays it.

Listen to Crocker, who walked away from last night's 100 butterfly with a silver medal and the understanding that he would not be in tonight's big medley relay.

"There's no room for regret. I'm proud of this U.S. team. A lot of guys deserve the chance to swim. That's part of the game. Michael has made my situation better as I went along. Without Michael's rivalry, I wouldn't be this far," Crocker said.

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