AUSTIN, Texas - Michael Phelps has been anointed as the athlete to watch at the 2004 Olympics.
NBC hopes that his quest to win seven gold medals in Greece will pump up its ratings. Corporate entities from Speedo to AT&T Wireless have signed him to endorsement deals.
Anyone interested in swimming or the Olympics wants a piece of Phelps, but that phrase carries a different context for Ian Crocker and Aaron Peirsol.
They could be Phelps' best buddies on a relay team - and his biggest enemies in individual events.
Phelps owns three world records and is No. 2 all time in two others. Who holds those marks? Crocker and Peirsol, the only men who beat Phelps in an otherwise invincible 2003.
After Phelps, they are the only other American men who won individual titles at last year's world championships. Crocker and Peirsol are students at the University of Texas and teammates. Both have been spurred on by Phelps, though neither is intimidated by him.
Otherwise, the two are as different as their home coasts.
Crocker is from Portland, Maine, a state that does not have an Olympic-sized pool. Peirsol was rarely out of the water in Southern California. Crocker is fascinated by a 63-year-old singer-songwriter, while Peirsol is a surfer dude who sounds like Spicoli, the slacker from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Asked about his rivalry with Phelps, the New Englander weighs his words. The Californian, who told his hometown newspaper, "There's no way I would let him [Phelps] beat me," does the trash talking for both of them.
"I don't know how Michael can beat Ian in the 100 fly," Peirsol said in an interview here last month. "I know that Phelps is capable of so much, but I've never seen anyone do what Ian can do. I don't take anything away from Phelps. Phelps is a wonderful swimmer, but that's what I see."
That hissing you hear is steam coming from the ears of Phelps, who will face both Saturday at the Santa Clara (Calif.) International Invitational. In the 100 butterfly, Phelps can avenge the defeat Crocker dealt him at July's world championships. An hour or so later, Phelps can reverse the 200 backstroke he dropped to Peirsol in last year's Santa Clara International.
It is the last major meet for Phelps before the Olympic trials, which begin in 48 days. He may choose to take on Peirsol and Crocker on successive nights at the trials and then the games themselves, tightening their ties.
Phelps has a sentimental spot for Texas - his first world record came here, in the Longhorns' pool. Crocker just signed with Octagon, the agency that represents Phelps. Peirsol has set world records in the medley relay with both Phelps and Crocker handling the butterfly leg. At Texas, Crocker and Peirsol are directed by Eddie Reese, the Olympic men's head coach devising the relay lineups that will affect Phelps' medal tally.
Four years ago in Sydney, Australia, their youth created a historic first, an American Olympic men's swimming team that was younger than the women's.
Phelps was queued for a shuttle bus that would take him to the final of the 200-meter butterfly when he realized he was carrying the credential of Peirsol, his roommate. In Brisbane before the games, Peirsol left his USOC-issued cellular phone in the back seat of his cab. It was returned to his coach, who text-messaged anyone near Peirsol, regarding ransom demands.
The most awe-struck of the three, Crocker won relay gold at 18. Peirsol, then 17, claimed silver in the 200 backstroke. At 15 the youngest American male to swim in the Olympics in 68 years, Phelps finished fifth.
At night, he and Peirsol talked themselves to sleep with their plans. The boyish boasts have come true.
Phelps uses defeat as motivation.
A loss to Olympic champion Tom Malchow in the 200 butterfly at the 2002 Pan Pacific Championships fueled last year's landmark campaign. For the past nine months, Phelps has been pushed by the sting of his loss to Crocker. His image is one of the first things Phelps sees when he awakes.
What adorns Crocker's bedroom walls?
"Pictures of Bob Dylan," Crocker said. "A few album covers from the 1960s, Bringing It All Back Home, Freewheelin'."
A year ago, Crocker was known for being a Dylan freak, tinkering with his 1971 Buick Riviera and not fulfilling the promise he showed in 1998, when he became the first 15-year-old to break two minutes in the 200 freestyle. Given his Maine roots, he was a curio item.
"I came from a four-lane, 25-yard pool," Crocker said. "Most of the time, it was kept at 85 degrees. It was attached to an elementary school, and the handicapped didn't want to swim in cold water, so there were fecal contaminations about every other week. ... When I came on the scene at 15, that caused some hype. Being a small-town kid, I didn't know how to handle it."
His freestyle stagnated before the 2000 trials, but Crocker emerged as America's best in the 100 butterfly in front of Baltimore's Tommy Hannan, the other U.S. entry in Sydney. He joined Lenny Krayzelburg, Ed Moses and Gary Hall Jr. on a medley relay team that set a world mark, but he didn't strut like a gold medalist.
"Phelps and Peirsol had this steely confidence that belied their age," said Mark Schubert, the head Olympic men's coach in 2000. "Ian was still building his confidence."
Crocker then entered Texas and struggled to adapt to Reese's regimen, which emphasizes weight training. He wasn't totally committed until after the 2002 Summer Nationals, when Phelps supplanted him as America's best in the 100 butterfly.
"I had taken my position for granted, but Michael woke me up," Crocker said.
The work Crocker did during the 2002-03 school year was evident at the world championships in Barcelona, Spain. He arrived with a year-old personal best of 52.21. A Ukrainian and then Phelps battered the world record in the semifinals. An overlooked third seed in the final, Crocker took command early and held off Phelps to become the first under 51 seconds.
"Ian was the most surprised guy in the pool," Reese said. "I was second most. Michael was third most."
Crocker seemed sheepish about denying Phelps. Now he's bigger and more assured, 185 pounds and a shade under 6 feet 5. More than just Phelps' competition in the 100 butterfly, he has re-emerged as a freestyle threat. At the NCAAs, Crocker shaved a half-second from Alexander Popov's decade-old world short-course record in the 100 freestyle.
Crocker's key role
Crocker could be the keystone in Phelps' Olympic program.
To win seven golds, Phelps would most likely have to beat him in the 100 butterfly, which would then make Phelps a lock for the medley relay team. The United States is not favored in the other two relays, so Phelps must mull a fifth individual event and weigh which world-record holder is more vulnerable, Australian Ian Thorpe in the 200 freestyle or Peirsol in the 200 backstroke.
Peirsol delayed the start of his junior year of high school for the 2000 Olympics. In March 2002, he lowered the world record to 1:55.15. He won both backstrokes at the 2003 world championships, but hasn't gotten any faster in his signature event. When Phelps dipped to 1:55.30 last February, Peirsol got the news and gulped.
"That record is soft," Peirsol said. "I'm glad Phelps showed me that I needed to get my act together."
Peirsol's background mirrors Phelps'. He has a swimming sibling, was precocious - only a handful of U.S. men won individual medals at a younger age - and developed in a program known for turning out Olympians. Dave Salo tutored him at Novaquatics in his hometown of Irvine, Calif. That's not far from Long Beach, the site of July's U.S. trials.
"My friends and I, a lot of times in high school during lunch break, we'd get in the ocean," Peirsol said. "I hung out up and down the coast - Newport Beach, Corona del Mar, Huntington Beach."
Peirsol, who overslept one morning at the 2003 NCAA championships but still wound up collegiate Swimmer of the Year, doesn't take himself too seriously.
Last summer in Barcelona, as the big-screen camera scanned the pool deck during an awards ceremony, he got caught making faces at his sister Hayley, the silver medalist in the 1,500 freestyle. The victorious medley relay team included Peirsol, Crocker and Texas teammate Brendan Hansen, who discovered that some Europeans view the "Hook 'em, 'Horns" sign as a crude gesture.
After the world championships, Phelps joined a group that checked out the Olympic site in Athens, then resumed his grueling schedule. Peirsol went home and kicked back.
"I didn't touch a pool for a month," said Peirsol, who turned pro and signed with Nike last month, after his sophomore season. "Every summer I have to do that."
Phelps is coy about his Olympic program, which has irritated Peirsol.
"If he really doesn't [know what he's going to swim], that's understandable," Peirsol said. "If he does and he's trying to make everyone guess, fine, but at a certain level, you can move past that. The way it's been expressed to me, he knows, but he won't tell anyone."
Wherever their paths cross, Ian, Aaron and the boys will make Phelps' summer more taxing.
"Because of things that have happened in track and other sports," Crocker said, "people who wouldn't normally watch swimming will this summer. We're in a perfect position, as a team in the United States, to put on a hell of a show."
One in a series of occasional articles on Michael Phelps and his path to the 2004 Olympics.