Showdown could prove costly for Phelps

ATHENS, Greece -- Ian Crocker's sore throat has set off a chain reaction that might make the men's 200-meter freestyle final Monday the most momentous swim race ever.

Crocker's illness led to a horrific first leg of the Americans' 4x100 meter freestyle relay Sunday night. That shocker cost the United States the race, which cost Michael Phelps any hope of winning eight gold medals in these Olympics as the U.S. settled for bronze. If Crocker's poor health continues, it might ease Phelps' bid to win the 100 butterfly against him Friday, which in turn renders Monday's showdown with Australia's Ian Thorpe and the Netherlands' Pieter van den Hoogenband all the more crucial.

Phelps wins, and he has a legitimate shot at seven. Lose, and the best he can do is six. This is the moment -- the two minutes -- all of swimming has been waiting for: the first time Phelps, Thorpe and van den Hoogenband meet with a medal on the line.

What's at stake? Where to start? Phelps waves goodbye to the much-ballyhooed $1 million bonus offered by Speedo if he loses Monday. But it's much more than that. Rightfully or not, much of the wind behind the swimming fever pulsing through the United States will vanish if Phelps cannot match Mark Spitz. No matter what he says, Phelps wants to beat Thorpe so badly that he blew off coach Bob Bowman's suggestion to skip the race. Phelps is ravenous for the popularity of swimming in his nation to match that of Thorpe's homeland. Hard to see that happening if he loses his bid for seven golds on the third day of the Games. Unfortunate, yes. But probably true.

Which brings us to the Aussie. Thorpe owns the world record in this event, but he does not own Olympic gold. Despite three golds in Sydney four years ago, his loss to van den Hoogenband deflated his entire country. Thorpe could make every Aussie forget about that loss with a gold Monday. Another loss could leave a permanent void in his unforgettable career.

Then there's van den Hoogenband, who is somehow an also-ran in the race he can rightfully claim to own. The Dutchman swam a semifinals best 1:46 flat on Sunday, then turned in a stunning 46.79 in his anchor leg of the 4x100 free final to rob the Americans of silver. The Dutchman was the only racer to swim a sub-47 relay leg Sunday. A gold Monday would cement his place as one of the best freestylers ever.

And finally there's Spitz, who will only race tomorrow in spirit. A Phelps loss will only make the legend of Munich grow. A Phelps win could go down in history as the beginning of the end of Spitz's sole ownership of arguably the greatest single-Olympics feat ever. The main pool here has a Lane 9, and it should be reserved Monday for Spitz.

Don't forget Crocker's place in all this. His 50.05 was the worst leg of any swimmer on any team Monday night. The Maine native came down with a sore throat a few days ago, but that may not fully explain the lapse. The United States was nearly two full seconds behind eventual gold-medalist South Africa after Crocker swam. Phelps, Neil Walker and Jason Lezak closed the gap on the South Africans, but they couldn't overcome the strong wake of the leaders under choppy water conditions.

So why was Crocker even on the team, with Gary Hall Jr. waiting in his boxing robe? "If somebody told me Ian Crocker would go that slow," Reese said of Crocker, whose record in the 100 freestyle is 49.06, "I wouldn't have believed it. He can't go that slow."

At least Crocker qualified at trials to swim the race. The team, while insisting they were unified, appeared split by the decision to put Phelps in the race after he didn't try to qualify at trials. Hall Jr. swam in the prelims, but stayed away from the pool for the final. After the team took bronze instead of gold, Hall Jr.'s agent, David Arluck, ripped Reese's decision to The Associated Press, asking why a three-time Olympian was subbed out for a 19-year-old "who is going after something that he's not going to accomplish anyway."

Asked if he was concerned about Crocker, Reese said, "A little bit. He'll be better (in the 100 butterfly), but maybe not as good as we planned." (Crocker, who had a post-Olympic letdown after the Sydney Olympics, was diagnosed with depression two years ago and treated with medication.) So that little bit might be all Phelps needs to win gold in his penultimate race of the Games. Then again, if Crocker rallies, he could cost Phelps a shot at his million both on purpose and by accident.

Phelps did not show up at the post-race press conference. He said he was happy with his 200 freestyle semi -- despite coming up slower than van den Hoogenband and Thorpe -- but disappointed with bronze in the relay. That may be an understatement.

So the last word before the greatest race belonged to Reese, who might shoulder an inordinate amount of blame for not sitting the butterfly specialist who swam for him over the past four years at Texas.

"The seven gold medal quest I don't believe is his," Reese said of Phelps on Sunday night. "Speedo made that offer. He wanted to swim the 200 free for the right reasons. He's a racer, he's a sportsman, and he wants to race Ian Thorpe. That is the true nature of a sportsman. He would not miss a beat if he doesn't win seven."

Unfortunately, his sport might.

Eric Adelson is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.