U.S. stars to let it fly

Swimmers Phelps, Crocker close despite heated competition

March 31, 2007|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,Sun Reporter

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA -- Ian Crocker, the world-record holder in the 100-meter butterfly, doesn't mind being the roadblock standing in the way of swimming history.

He doesn't feel like he's been cast as the bad guy in his rivalry with Michael Phelps. The whole thing, in fact, kind of makes him smile. People want to see Phelps win eight gold medals this week at the FINA World Championships, and at the Beijing Olympics, and Crocker may be the man who stands in the way. He understands why he might not be embraced by those with only a casual interest in swimming. He's philosophical and relaxed about it, the way he is about pretty much everything in his life.

"Since the summer of 2002, I've realized that Michael's whole plan is to put the rest of the [United States] national team out of a job," Crocker said this week, only half kidding. "But that's exactly what drives these world records further and further. ... I'm an antsy person, and I really am looking forward to swimming."

In five days here, Phelps had made the amazing seem almost routine, winning five gold medals and setting four world records. But his biggest challenge will be early this morning - night in Australia - in the 100-meter butterfly, when for the first time this week, he'll be a serious underdog.

"Someone asked me the other day, `Is Michael doing the 100 fly?'" Phelps' coach Bob Bowman said. "I said, `Well, yeah, it's really the main event he wants to do.' All the others, everybody is shooting for you. It's the one event he gets to have some fun. If he wins - great. If he doesn't - great. He's just going for his best time. It's just a different dynamic than the others."

With the gold medal at stake at the Olympics in Athens in 2004, Phelps beat Crocker by little more than the length of a fingernail. But when they met again at the FINA World Championships in Montreal in 2005, Crocker beat Phelps by a full body length and smashed the world record with a time of 50.40 seconds, one that still stands. Phelps beat Crocker at U.S. Nationals last summer in early August, but chose to pass on a rematch at the Pan Pacifics weeks later.

"In Athens, I didn't swim a smart race," Crocker said. "We all know how that turned out. For me, it's about swimming my race, and being controlled in my lane, and saving something for the last 15 meters. In Athens, I was out with a little too much adrenaline on the first 50, and didn't have anything left. I've made that mistake before, but never in that big of an environment. If you don't keep your cool, Michael will take advantage, and that's just the nature of competition."

It has become, over time, one of the best rivalries in swimming. Whoever wins the 100 fly this morning will get a spot on the American 400-meter medley relay team tomorrow, with the runner-up swimming for the U.S. in the semifinals.

"When we do talk, it's not really about the 100 fly," Phelps said. "He's a down-to-earth guy. A great guy. I was able to really get to know him more after the Olympics, when we were both on the Swim with the Stars tour. I spent almost a month with him, day in, day out, nearly 24 hours a day. We got to know each other pretty good. He's definitely one of a kind."

The contrast in Crocker's and Phelps' personalities have always served as a colorful backdrop to their rivalry. As far as athletes go, Crocker is something of a Renaissance man. He's an accomplished guitar player whose tastes range anywhere from 1930s jazz to Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Wilco. He loves tinkering with classic cars. He can wax philosophical about the beauty of the Italian language. And he delves into the complexities of religion, art and cooking, among other things, on a blog he's been writing during the World Championships at swimroom.com.

Phelps generally doesn't concern himself with such things, which isn't a knock on him. His incredible ability to focus on swimming big races, day after day, comes from his innate ability to wipe his mind clean of pretty much everything except the rap song playing in his earbuds.

"The last few days it's been Young Jeezy's `Go Getta,'" Phelps said. "So I'll think I'll stick with what's been working."

A reporter this week asked Phelps if he and Crocker could ever convince the other to listen to their music. Before the question was even halfway out, Phelps had his answer.

"Absolutely not," he said.

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

Ten Days

Here are 10 days to remember in what is probably swimming's best rivalry, Ian Crocker against Michael Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly.

Aug. 15, 2000 / / Three days after Phelps finishes second in the 200 butterfly to become America's youngest male Olympian since 1952, Crocker, 17, wins the 100 butterfly at the U.S. trials in Indianapolis.

Aug. 16, 2002 / / Phelps beats Crocker at the U.S. Summer Nationals in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., lowering his American record to 51.88.

July 25, 2003 / / In a semifinal at the FINA World Championships in Barcelona, Spain, Phelps lowers the world record to 51.47.

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