Phelps last major obstacles are a couple of mates
BEIJING (AP) So, it's come down to this for Michael Phelps:
The only guys likely to stop him from taking down the ultimate Olympic record are wearing red, white and blue.
Ryan Lochte was gunning for Phelps in the 200-meter individual medley. Ian Crocker was eager to take him down in the 100 fly. Neither has an Olympic gold medal of his own - an omission they'd sure like to fix before they leave Beijing, even it means costing Phelps his historic No. 8.
"Michael has his goals and I have mine," Crocker said. "I don't think anyone should get in the way of what I want. I'm not going to feel bad if I go out and race my heart out and end up winning."
If he's going to beat Phelps, he'd sure better pick up the pace. For the preliminaries Thursday night, Crocker inexplicably came out wearing a jammer - a suit that goes only from the waist to just above the knees - and put up the 13th-fastest time, coming perilously close to missing out on the semifinals.
"He wanted to try it," said his coach, Eddie Reese. "It's a physical and psychological disadvantage."
Not even his coach sounded very convincing when asked if Crocker has a chance to derail history.
"I hope so," Reese said, "but Michael's a human rocket at the moment."
Lochte gets the first crack at Phelps in the 200 IM final, which requires one lap with each of the four strokes. Both easily advanced out of the semifinals, setting up a side-by-side rematch Friday morning of their duel in the 400 IM.
Phelps won that race by crushing his own world record, while Lochte struggled home with the bronze. But the laid-back Floridian was apparently bothered by some sort of stomach problem early in the week; he insists he's feeling fine now.
Still, Lochte faced a huge challenge. Not only does he have to race the world's greatest swimmer, he'll be doing it just 29 minutes after he faces another American juggernaut in the 200 backstroke final.
Aaron Peirsol, the defending Olympic champion, beat Lochte in the U.S. trials and shares the world record with him.
"I just get ready for one race," said Lochte, who has bonded with Phelps over their shared passion of hip-hop music. "The most important thing is being able to separate (the two races) and just most on. I've trained for it. I'm used to it. The biggest part for me is the psychological part."
Kirsty Conventry of Zimbabwe, who's quite versatile herself, can't wait to see how it turns out for Lochte.
"He just loves to get in and race the best, and that pushes Michael, and that pushes Aaron Peirsol," she said. "I think Aaron and Michael both know that he's a threat when he's on, and I think those are going to be two very exciting races to watch."
If Phelps claims his sixth gold of the games in the 200 IM, his last individual race would be the 100 fly on Sunday. Considering Crocker is the world record-holder, this would seem to be a daunting challenge.
But Phelps has beaten the soft-spoken, 25-year-old from Maine at almost every big meet during the last four years, including the 2004 Athens Olympics, world championships and the U.S. Olympic trials.
Crocker sure didn't look too strong in the prelims, his only individual event of the games. He touched in a sluggish time of 51.95 seconds, just a tenth of a second ahead of the final qualifier and at least a full stroke off his world record of 50.40, set three long years ago at the worlds in Montreal.
"That's a swim to get me into the meet a little bit," Crocker said with a shrug. "It's been a long week waiting and watching a lot of ups and downs. Finally, I'm in the meet and I can relax and do my race a little bit better."
Phelps already has five gold medals - and five world records. He's become the winningest Olympian ever, adding to the six golds he won in Athens. He's been dubbed "icon of the games" by IOC president Jacques Rogge, no less.
In the 100 fly, Phelps qualified second overall in 50.87 seconds. He trailed Milorad Cavic of Serbia, who won his heat in an Olympic record of 50.76.
"That was OK," Phelps said. "I didn't have much speed the first 50, but I think I came home pretty good. I just need to put myself out there a little more in the first 50 and I'll be OK."
He sure didn't sound worried.
"It's a prelim. Nothing really counts until finals," Phelps said. "I'll just try to set myself up for a good final and go from there."
The only other event on Phelps' remaining schedule is the 400-medley relay, an Olympic event the Americans have never lost in the pool (Australia was the gold medalist in 1980 when the U.S. boycotted).
Considering the depth of the Americans over all strokes, it likely would take a monumental blunder for them to claim anything but gold in that event, something along the lines of Crocker's botched start that disqualified the Americans in the preliminaries of last year's worlds. It cost Phelps a chance to go for his eighth victory in Melbourne.
Assuming the improbable doesn't happen, the final event Sunday would be the culmination of Phelps' bid to take down Mark Spitz's record of seven golds at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
But nothing is a given. Just ask Americans Katie Hoff and Kate Ziegler, who stunningly washed out of the Olympics in the 800 freestyle preliminaries.
Hoff was 11th overall and Ziegler 10th. Both finished more than eight seconds off their personal best times.
"I don't think many people bet on that," Ziegler said.
The 19-year-old Hoff may have been trying to do too much, attempting a grueling schedule that included five individual races and one relay. She won a silver and two bronzes, but had two fourth-place finishes and wasn't even that good in her final race.
"She gave it everything she had," said Jack Bauerle, head coach of the U.S. women's team. "She was just pretty much out of gas."
Ziegler is world champion in the 800 but hardly looked like it. She felt strong over the first half of the race, then suddenly realized she wasn't going to have enough energy to finish strong.
"Some days, your body just doesn't work," Ziegler said. "My body picked a bad time not to work."
Crocker and Lochte can only hope for some sort of slip-up from Phelps.
"The pressure is on him because he is the one with all the expectations," Crocker said. "We're the underdogs. That's a good place to be."