MONTREAL - Michael Phelps and Ian Crocker are both friends and rivals, but in many ways, they could not be more different.
Phelps is a 20-year-old hip-hop devotee from Baltimore with a granite chin and a body that a Greek god could envy. He's world-famous, worth millions of dollars, and in the past year, he's partied with celebrities and made multiple appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
Crocker is a 22-year-old from Portland, Maine, with sleepy, green eyes and a passion for obscure Bob Dylan tunes. He has a hint of a double chin, talks as if he should be carrying a surfboard instead of a swim cap, and can be so laid-back that at times, you're tempted to check his pulse. Outside the swimming world, he's virtually anonymous.
But right now, Crocker, not Phelps, is the fastest in the world in the 100-meter butterfly, and that is the only difference that matters.
That fact became painfully obvious to Phelps last night at Parc Jean-Drapeau as Crocker set a world record in the final of the 100 butterfly at the FINA World Championships, finishing in 50.40 seconds.
Phelps - who beat Crocker in the same event at the Olympics in Athens - finished more than 1.2 seconds behind in second place. Afterward, in a news conference, a frustrated Phelps said his performance at this year's world championships has made him realize he needs to rededicate himself to the sport. And if he does not, more competitors are apt to pass him.
"This year and this world championships have been a big wake-up call for me," Phelps said. "I don't think the past year has been a normal year for me, and I don't like the feeling of not [swimming] the best time. What happened here, I'm going to use for motivation, and hopefully by next summer, I'll be able to give [Crocker] a race. He sort of ran away with it, and I wasn't even a factor."
Just how fast was Crocker? The answer reveals how much swimming has advanced in the past 30 years. In 1975, American Jim Montgomery actually swam a slower world-record time in the 100-meter freestyle (50.59 seconds) than Crocker swam yesterday in the butterfly.
"I always assume when I get up and race against Michael that it's going to take something amazing like a world record to win," said Crocker, who broke his own world record by .36 of a second. "That's the attitude you have to take when you're racing him. ... I don't think it was a perfect race. I don't believe in the perfect race. There is always stuff I can improve on. I want to get [under 50 seconds]."
Two years ago, at the world championships in Barcelona, it was Phelps who set a world record in the event, finishing in 51.10. When Crocker broke that mark at the U.S. trials in 2004, Phelps put a picture of Crocker above his bed and stared at it every day for inspiration. Crocker acknowledged that he was equally inspired by Phelps' victory at the Olympics.
"I just train as hard as I can, and when it's race day, it's go time for me," Crocker said. "The Olympics didn't end quite the way I wanted them to. It's one of those things where it's once every four years, but whoever is on top that day is the best. I didn't have my best on that day. I was working to make sure that didn't happen again."
Though there are still other meets remaining on Phelps' schedule, it now seems likely that this year will be the first since 2000 that he will not break a world record in any event. Yesterday, for the second time this week, Phelps said he might have let outside distractions affect his focus this year, and he vowed to not let it happen again.
"I had a thousand decisions this year, and maybe 600 of them were made for swimming reasons," Phelps said. "The two years leading up to Athens, maybe 999 were made for swimming reasons. That's the difference between my swimming the past two years and my swimming now."
Though Phelps still has one event left, today's 400-meter medley relay, he will swim only in the preliminary race, not a final. American tradition dictates that the winner of the 100 butterfly earns a spot on the relay team, so Phelps will give Crocker a chance to rest in the morning during qualifiers, then step aside for the final.
In Athens, Phelps earned the spot on the medley relay team, but gave it up to Crocker in a much-lauded display of sportsmanship. Phelps will still get a gold medal today if the heavily favored U.S. team wins, just as he did in Athens, but he acknowledged being disappointed that he won't earn it in the pool.
"I didn't have the best time, and that's the bottom line," Phelps said. "I know what I have to do in the coming year if I want to be back where I was a year ago."