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PHELPS' RUN FOR GOLD ENDS IN BRONZE U.S. CAN'T RECOVER FROM ILL CROCKER'S FIRST LEG.

Byline: Steve Dilbeck Staff Writer

ATHENS - Turns out all will not be golden for Olympic cover boy Michael Phelps, nor the U.S. swim team.

Phelps' ambitious dream of surpassing Mark Spitz with eight gold medals ended on the second day of competition Sunday when the U.S. 400 freestyle relay team finished a disappointing third. On a windy Athens night that saw U.S. swimmers fail to produce a single gold, it was the unexpected finish of the relay team that abruptly halted Phelps' hope of making history.

The best he can manage now is to tie the Spitz single-Olympic record of seven golds.

The U.S. team did produce a silver, and a bit of controversy, with Brandon Hansen in the men's 100 breaststroke, and another bronze with USC's Kaitlin Sandeno in the women's 400 freestyle.

But it was Phelps, who had captured Olympic imagination by putting himself in position to win eight golds, who once again carried swimming's spotlight.

``I don't honestly believe that's on his mind here or he would have stopped the 200 free,'' said U.S. coach Eddie Reese. ``He's a racer. He wants to race Ian Thorpe while he's still at the top.

``That's the true nature of sports. He will not miss a beat if he doesn't win seven gold medals.''

Phelps' biggest individual test could come in tonight's 200 free final. In Sunday's semifinal, he was matched in the lane next to Thorpe and finished second to the Australian.

There wasn't much Phelps, who won the 400 individual medley on Saturday, could do Sunday to keep his gold quest alive. He was swimming second, but Ian Crocker got off a disastrous opening leg. Crocker, who team officials later said has been battling a cold, swam the slowest leg of any swimmer all night, leaving the U.S. in last place by the time Phelps dove in the water.

He pulled the U.S. to sixth, and Neil Walker brought the U.S. all the way back to third, but Jason Lezak could not improve on their overall position as surprising South Africa won in world-record time, while the Netherlands took the silver.

``We are disappointed, but we're fortunate to get a medal,'' Phelps said. ``We definitely did want to win the gold.

``The South African team was all fast and I think it caught us completely by surprise. They went out really fast, and then it's difficult to play catch-up.''

The U.S. has dominated this event in the past. It had won every gold medal until finishing second to the Australians in Sydney in 2000.

Reese may be haunted by his decision to swim Crocker instead of Gary Hall Jr., who was disappointed he was not on the team in the finals instead of Phelps. Hall did not attend Sunday's swim. In the morning, Hall anchored the U.S. semifinal relay team, turning in a 48.73 leg. Crocker swam 50.05, and although the difference still would have left the Americans .13 behind South Africa, not letting them build such an early lead could have changed the complexion of the race.

``We just had to take the chance,'' Reese said.

``There's no way I would have believed he could go that slow. It was not in my mind, not in his mind.''

Crocker is the world-record holder in the 100 butterfly, and Reese admitted he was concerned how Sunday's performance might impact him in the coming days.

Reese said Crocker, who swims for him at Texas, has had the cold for about four days, but decided against antibiotics for fear they might impact his performance.

``I'm trying to ignore it and take care of business because there's not much I can do about it,'' Crocker said. ``I'm deeply disappointed with my swim, but I'm glad the U.S. has such good swimmers to make it up. ``For myself, there's no place to go but up.''

Several U.S. swimmers thought Hansen, the world-record holder in the 100 breaststroke should have gone up a step on the podium.

Lezak and Aaron Peirsol both claimed Japan's gold-medal winner, Kosuke Kitajima used an illegal kick on his turn. Kitajima edged Hansen 1:00.08 to 1:00.25 after trailing by .04 going into the turn.

``That was Brandon's gold medal,'' Peirsol said.

It's up to the judges to make an illegal kick call, and a judge's decision cannot be appealed. Peirsol said he and Crocker were watching and it was obvious Kitajima used a dolphin kick.

``We couldn't believe it,'' Peirsol said.

Reese tried to be diplomatic.

``No whistle, no foul,'' he said.

The two figure to meet again in the 200 breaststroke.

``I remember him shouting in my ears,'' Hansen said of the celebrating Kitajima. ``I'll keep that in my head to fire me up.''

Hansen, however, downplayed any illegal kick.

``You guys are making too big a deal out of this,'' he said.

Jenny Thompson, America's most decorated female Olympian, failed in her bid to win her first individual gold. She finished fifth in the 100 butterfly.

Steve Dilbeck, (818) 713-3607

stephen.dilbeck(at)dailynews.com
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 16, 2004
Words:857
Previous Article:SOFTBALL: AMERICANS MAKE QUICK WORK OF RIVAL AUSSIES U.S. 10, AUSTRALIA 0.
Next Article:AMERICANS STUMBLE, BUT IN RUNNING FOR GOLD.


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