ATHENS — Michael Phelps became only the second male swimmer to collect three individual gold medals in a single Olympics when he won the 200-meter individual medley yesterday. If he can follow that today with a victory over a 100-meter butterfly field headed by Ian Crocker, Phelps will surpass Mark Spitz in at least one regard.
Spitz won four individual events on his way to seven gold medals at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Phelps could finish with four gold and a bronze - the most individual medals in one Games in the history of Olympic men's swimming.What was it like to reach a men's swimming milestone only Spitz had experienced, three individual wins in one Olympics? Always thinking of his next race, Phelps seemed oblivious to the accomplishment, but his coach knew.
"I feel fantastic," Bob Bowman said. "To see him come back and swim his 100 fly after that IM, after he just accomplished that feat, it just makes me glad that we worked real hard and blessed to be able to work with a swimmer like that."
Phelps set two Olympic records 40 minutes apart last night. He became the first American since 1968 to win the 200 individual medley, then turned around with the fastest time in the semifinals of the butterfly, putting him in position for a triumphant finish to his second Olympics.
Counting two relays, Phelps' medal count is four gold and two bronze.
Barring catastrophe or disqualification, he will likely become the first athlete to win eight medals in a non-boycotted Summer Olympics. Russian gymnast Alexander Dityatin won eight medals in 1980, when the United States led a boycott of the Moscow Olympics because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
"I saw that online one day," Phelps said. "I did see that record."
Phelps was scheduled to be back in the pool this morning, swimming the butterfly leg in the preliminary of the 400 medley relay, where a nation uses its best in each of the four strokes. He was put in the preliminary race because he finished second to Crocker at the U.S. trials.
The United States has never lost the relay, which figures to give Phelps another gold medal. Even if Phelps doesn't swim the relay final, he would still get a gold medal as a member of the team if it wins. To swim the relay final, he must beat Crocker in the 100 butterfly. At this point, he is motivated not by Spitz but by the customs of his sport.
Thirteen months ago in Barcelona, Spain, at the 2003 world championships, Crocker beat him in the 100 butterfly, keeping Phelps out of the climactic medley relay final in the meet that turned him into an international star.
Only those who swim the final participate in the medal ceremony, and that pomp for the medley relay tomorrow will provide the final image of an eight-day Olympic program in which Phelps has been spectacular.
Today's butterfly final will be contested at 7:40 p.m. Athens time (12:40 p.m. in Baltimore). How badly does Phelps want to beat Crocker and thus be in position to put a nice bow on his Olympics?
"Big time," Phelps said. "Everybody wants to swim in the finals of a relay. I missed out on that last year. I hope to be there here."
Phelps beat Crocker in the semifinals last night, when a cool head was a must.
The schedule was delayed over controversy in the 200-meter backstroke, an event Phelps was qualified to swim here but dropped because of relay demands. Aaron Peirsol's runaway victory was disqualified, then upheld. Boos followed Peirsol's ouster, then changed to cheers for the reversal just before Phelps appeared on the deck for the 200 IM.
Leading at every turn, Phelps won in 1 minute, 57.14 seconds, a middle-of-the-road final for him in an event in which he now holds the eight fastest times. Phelps touched with the Olympics' biggest margin of victory in 20 years, pumped his right fist and smiled only when he saw that American teammate Ryan Lochte had taken silver.
Midway through the medalists' promenade, Phelps tossed his olive wreath to his mother, Debbie, but his thoughts probably never strayed far from Crocker.
The 100 butterfly semifinals followed the pattern of the 2003 world championships. Then, Andriy Serdinov of Ukraine broke the world record in the first semifinal, only to see Phelps better it minutes later. Last night, Serdinov got an Olympic record of 51.74 in the first semifinal, before Phelps showed his otherworldly fitness.
Not as quick in the first 50 meters as Crocker, Phelps was down by only .3 of a second at the midway point. He blew past in the closing stages with a clocking of 51.61 that was twenty-two hundredths of a second faster than Crocker's.
"That was so good, 66 [his 50 split was 24.66], perfect," Bowman told Phelps as he passed through the interview area.
Bowman returned to holding court.
"I can't even make you understand how hard that is," he said.
Racing, warming up and warming down, Phelps will log more than 42 miles this week, a hard training week for the hardest of workers.
"It's like he's getting in shape," Bowman said. "We've still got a few days. Maybe he'll get faster and faster."