As much as he has come to loom over the sport of swimming, Michael Phelps wants to be one of the guys on the American team. As much as he is motivated by the slightest of slights, Phelps calmed his competitiveness and gave up his spot in the climax to the Athens Olympic swim program.
Ian Crocker made good on Phelps' decision to hand him his berth on the butterfly leg in last night's final of the 400-meter medley relay. As Crocker put up the fastest split time ever and helped produce a world record in an event in which the United States is invincible, Phelps whooped and hollered from the front row.
"I'm proud of giving someone like Ian another chance," Phelps said. "That was very exciting. I felt like I was part of the race."
Phelps had earned the right to swim in the relay final by taking gold over Crocker in Friday's 100 butterfly. He handled the preliminary of the relay, however, which meant he would earn whatever medal came in the final.
When his offer was relayed from U.S. coach Eddie Reese, Crocker initially declined.
"It definitely seemed like a gift too big to accept," Crocker said, "but when we broke it down, it seemed like it could be logical on some fronts."
Aaron Peirsol, Brendan Hansen and Crocker, world-record holders working the first three legs in the final, were teammates at the University of Texas, with vast experience on relay exchanges. Having never competed collegiately, Phelps does not have that background.
Crocker beat Phelps in the 100 butterfly at the 2003 world championships, and came back the next evening with a leg of 50.39 seconds. No one else, including Phelps, had ever swum a split under 51. Last night, Crocker's reaction time at the exchange was a minuscule .04 of a second, and he swam 50.28.
Peirsol led off with a world record in the backstroke, 53.45. Hansen, the silver medalist in the 100 breaststroke, yielded little distance to gold medalist Kosuke Kitajima of Japan. Crocker blew the race open, and Jason Lezak had his best freestyle of the meet.
After dropping the medley mark by nearly a second to 3:30.68, the four received their medals, then passed by the athletes' box that included Phelps. Standing near North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammate Katie Hoff, Phelps high-fived Peirsol, Hansen and Lezak, but hugged Crocker.
Off his preliminary swim, the medley relay gave Phelps his sixth gold medal of the Games and eighth overall, but he seemed delirious even before that race.
Swimming's last individual event was the 1,500 freestyle, which featured two more men Phelps admires. Australia's Grant Hackett repeated as the gold medalist in a test of courage his nation considers its birthright, but not without a battle from Larsen Jensen.
Jensen and Phelps were the only teenagers on the U.S. men's team. When the Californian needed a place to stay between the 2003 world championships in Barcelona, Spain, and the Summer Nationals in College Park, he flopped at Phelps' house in Rodgers Forge.
Hackett took an early three-second lead and won in 14:43.40, but Jensen came on and took silver in 14:45.29, shaving more than 11 seconds from his American record and becoming history's third-fastest in the event.
Jensen's medal nudged the American men toward a total of 18, their most since 1976, when nations were allowed three swimmers per event.
No other country earned more than six men's medals. Three of Phelps' four individual golds were complemented by silver for a teammate, and that might have been a clean sweep if Tom Malchow hadn't raced with a torn shoulder muscle in the 200 butterfly.