ATHENS — Michael Phelps added to one of the grandest performances in Olympic history, then unexpectedly pulled the plug on it and sent a thank-you gift to a rival who provided motivation.
Two months past his 19th birthday, Phelps completed a Summer Olympics for the ages with a narrow victory over fellow American Ian Crocker in the 100-meter butterfly last night.Today, he could become the second athlete and first in a non-boycotted Summer Olympics to win eight medals, but it will be an odd end for Phelps.
The 100 butterfly was his seventh medal and fifth gold, his fourth gold in an individual event. That matched Mark Spitz's four solo golds in 1972. No other male swimmer ever claimed more than two individual golds in a single Olympics.
Phelps also became the first man to win medals in five individual swimming events.
He earned the butterfly leg in tonight's 400 medley relay final, which concludes the eight-day Olympic swim program. Twenty-four hours after talking of making amends for losing that opportunity in their previous international meet, Phelps handed his spot to Crocker.
"Giving that up is tough," he said. "When the final comes, I'll be in the stands cheering."
The development apparently shocked Debbie Phelps, looking forward to an 18th race and a final trip to the medal podium for her son. A spokesman for USA Swimming said he couldn't recall another healthy swimmer making a similar gesture.
With Crocker replacing Phelps in the final lineup, the United States will have three world-record holders teaming in an Olympic event it has never lost.
Earlier yesterday, Phelps swam in the preliminaries of the relay. Athletes who swim only a preliminary earn whatever medal the team achieves in the final but do not participate in the ceremony. If form holds, Phelps will get a sixth gold to go with his two bronzes.
This was predicted for him after the 2003 world championships, when Phelps became the first swimmer to set five world records at a meet. He was unbeaten in Barcelona until Crocker upset him in the 100 butterfly.
Phelps returned to his home in Rodgers Forge and put a magazine cover featuring Crocker where he would see it when he awoke. That image spurred Phelps through a grueling regimen that averaged close to 45 miles a week.
His fitness was apparent last night, when Phelps posted his fourth Olympic record, 51.25 seconds. He was fifth at the turn, 0.77 of a second behind Crocker, but used the best surge of his career and his 6-foot-7 armspan to touch 0.04 before Crocker. Andriy Serdinov of Ukraine took the bronze, in 51.36.
"That race is something I dreamed about every single day leading up here," Phelps said, still dripping in his Speedo. "That's exciting. I'm able to be part of the relay [today], and that's even more exciting."
That position was reconsidered after the medal ceremony, when Phelps revisited a scenario he and coach Bob Bowman had previously discussed.
Crocker and Phelps were at the start of a subpar 400 freestyle relay Sunday that resulted in a bronze, the U.S. men's lowest Olympic finish in the event. Crocker came here anticipating three golds but would return home with none if Phelps handled both rounds of the relay.
When Crocker turned professional last spring, he signed with Octagon, the agency that represents Phelps. Peter Carlisle, the director of Olympic sports for Octagon, has explored tentative plans for a post-Olympic North American tour of appearances and match races featuring Phelps, Crocker and Lenny Krayzelburg, another Octagon client.
Having been driven by Crocker, Phelps could soon work alongside him. He was asked whether he would step aside for anyone else.
"Ian and I are good friends," Phelps said. "He wasn't feeling too well during the 400 freestyle, really, but history proves he's one of the fastest relay swimmers ever."
Last summer in Barcelona, Crocker had an outrageously fast split when the Americans lowered the world record.
Crocker was emotional when he got last night's lineup news.
"I feel that it's a huge gift that's difficult to accept, but it makes me want to tear up the pool [tonight]," Crocker said. "I'm going to do everything I can to make it feel like it was the right choice."
U.S. head coach Eddie Reese, who coached Crocker at the University of Texas, dropped the relay lineup bombshell while he and Bowman flanked Phelps at a news conference two hours after what was his last race here.
Facing his first day off from racing or serious training since a December 2002 blizzard kept him from getting to the Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center, Phelps made the television rounds, hit the McDonald's at the Main Press Center and conducted a brief news conference that concluded at 12:30 a.m. today.
What's it like for a teenager to be the most honored athlete among more than 10,000 here?
"I still think I'm a normal 19-year-old kid, but this is different," said Phelps.