ATHENS — Michael Phelps got psyched up for his first gold medal by watching the movie Miracle.
He is going to need one to meet the expectations that followed him from his home in Rodgers Forge to the Athens Olympics.Yesterday, he won a bronze medal as part of the U.S. 400-meter freestyle relay -- with his participation sparking controversy -- and he and the Americans are going to have to be perfect the rest of the way if he is to win the seven gold medals that would bring him a $1 million bonus from Speedo.
Still, Phelps is in line to become the second Summer Olympian to medal in eight events.
"We did want to win gold," Phelps said after the worst American finish in this relay in Olympic history. "It's a different experience."
South Africa took the gold and set a world record of 3 minutes, 13.17 seconds. The Netherlands took silver at 3:14.36, and the Americans finished in 3:14.62.
The Americans had never lost an Olympic 400 freestyle relay until the 2000 Games in Sydney, when they were upset by the Australians, who finished a disappointing sixth in yesterday's race. This was only the second time the U.S. men have not won a gold or silver medal in an Olympic relay.
It was a lost night for American men, coming on the same day the basketball team suffered its first Olympic loss with professional players.
The men's swim team squandered all of the momentum that Phelps and Erik Vendt created with their first- and second-place finishes in the 400 individual medley Saturday night.
After his initial Olympic victory, Phelps talked of the U.S. squad becoming the best swim team ever, but the men performed miserably on Day Two of the Olympics.
It was a long night for American men's coach Eddie Reese, who is also coach at the University of Texas. His judgment was questioned, and two of his swimmers from the school struggled.
Brendan Hansen, fresh off a world record in the 100 breaststroke, lost the final of that event to Japan's Kosuke Kitajima, who was then accused by American Aaron Peirsol of using an illegal kick during the race. Ian Crocker put the Americans dead last after the opening leg of the relay.
Phelps never got going in a pool filled with waves created by competitors.
"It's a whole lot different swimming in that wake," Phelps said. "It's difficult in those waves. I'm not used to swimming in them."
Reese went for rising talent over experience in the relay. Phelps did not swim the 100 freestyle at the U.S. trials last month but was given a spot over Gary Hall Jr. Hall did not attend the evening session and was not available for comment, but his agent voiced anger over his exclusion.
"They should be ashamed of themselves," David Arluck said of Reese's decision.
Hall swam a leg of 48.73 seconds in the morning preliminary but gave way to Phelps, who went 48.74 in the final. Hall won a total of eight medals in the two previous Olympics. Phelps should probably get that many here, but last night's relay figured in his chances at matching the record seven gold medals won by Mark Spitz in 1972.
(In 1980, Russian gymnast Alexander Dityatin won a record eight medals, four of them gold.)
Phelps passed two men on his leg. Neil Walker, another member of Reese's Texas team, had a strong split of 47.97 and moved the Americans up to third. Anchor Jason Lezak pushed up to second, but Dutch ace Pieter van den Hoogenband passed him in the closing meters for the silver.
South Africa never trailed, and the gold was its first medal of any shade in the event for the country, which was barred from the Olympics from 1964 until 1992.
The Americans held hands during the pre-race introductions, and Crocker needed comforting afterward. Second in the 100 freestyle at the U.S. trials, he was nearly a second slower, leading off in 50.05.
Crocker, who battled clinical depression after the 2000 Olympics but beat Phelps at the world championship 100 butterfly last year, was near tears as the outcome grew apparent. He declined to comment to reporters.
Reese said he didn't consider subbing Crocker, who had complained of a sore throat the past three days.
Any chance Phelps has at matching Spitz will require him to score an upset in tonight's 200 freestyle final, where he will be chasing van den Hoogenband and Australia's Ian Thorpe, the two fastest men ever in the event. He qualified for the event with the third-fastest time in the semifinals yesterday. He is still expected to become the second man to win three individual events and the first swimmer to medal in eight.
"He still has a good chance at eight medals," said Bob Bowman, his coach. "I wouldn't say he doesn't have a chance to do some other things I expected. A lot of this, he doesn't control."