ATHENS, Greece – Michael Phelps (search) surely didn't bargain for this. His quest to win eight gold medals is over, doomed by America's worst showing in the 400-meter freestyle relay. Gary Hall Jr. is ticked off. And now comes the toughest race of all against Ian Thorpe. Not exactly what Phelps had in mind when he decided to challenge Mark Spitz (search).
Phelps got a spot on the relay at the expense of Hall, who didn't even show up to watch the Americans get blown out of the water by a South African foursome that set a world record Sunday night.
With six events left in Athens, the best Phelps can do now is tie Spitz's record of seven gold medals from the 1972 Munich Games (search) — and there's no margin for error. Next up is the 200 free, a race that has been dominated by world record-holder Thorpe of Australia and the most imposing of Phelps' individual events.
The Americans already seemed to be laying the groundwork for failure.
"Michael will not miss a beat," U.S. men's coach Eddie Reese said, "if he doesn't win seven gold medals."
The 19-year-old from Baltimore opened with a gold in the 400 individual medley Saturday, but needed to win all eight of his events to surpass Spitz.
"We are disappointed, but we're fortunate to win a medal," Phelps said of Sunday night's bronze. "It's a learning experience."
A learning experience that apparently left Hall seething. One of the greatest sprinters in American history didn't even show up at the pool after being told he would be left off the team that swam the evening final.
"It's disappointing he wasn't here," Phelps said.
Hall could not be reached for comment, but his agent, David Arluck, was clearly displeased that a three-time Olympian was left off the team at the expense of someone who had never swam on an Olympic relay team.
"Gary is one of the best Olympians of all time," said Arluck, who was at the pool to cheer on another of his clients, South African Roland Schoeman. "I can't believe they kept him off the relay for some 19-year-old guy who is going after something that he's not going to accomplish anyway."
The South Africans broke the Aussies' world record with a time of 3 minutes, 13.17 seconds. The Netherlands took silver at 3:14.36, while Phelps and his American teammates finished third at 3:14.62.
The Americans had never lost an Olympic 400 free relay until they were upset by the Australians at the 2000 Sydney Games — both teams breaking the previous world record.
Across the board, a windy night at the pool didn't turn out well for the Americans.
World record-holder Brendan Hansen (search), swimming on his 23rd birthday, was beaten in the 100 breaststroke by Japan's Kosuke Kitajima, settling for a silver medal. France's Hugues Duboscq took the bronze.
And Jenny Thompson was again denied an individual gold, finishing fifth in the 100 butterfly. Any medal would have been the 12th of Thompson's illustrious career — more than any other swimmer — but she remains tied with Spitz, Matt Biondi and Carl Osburn.
"It was tough field," the 31-year-old Thompson said. "I tried everything I could to medal. It just wasn't in the cards."
Petria Thomas of Australia took the gold with an upset of defending Olympic champion Inge de Bruijn, who settled for bronze.
Also winning gold on the second night of the Olympic meet: 18-year-old Laure Manaudou of France in the women's 400 freestyle, with American Kaitlin Sandeno slipping in for a bronze.
Otylia Jedrzejczak of Poland won two silvers on the night, finishing behind Thomas in the 100 fly and Manaudou in the 400 free.
The previous men's 400-meter free relay record of 3:13.67 was shattered by Schoeman, Lyndon Ferns, Darian Townsend and Ryk Neethling. Schoeman put some distance on the field on the opening leg, and Neethling closed it out with an amazing 47.91 on the final 100.
The Americans were out of contention quickly. Ian Crocker led off with a dismal 50.05 — the worst 100 of any swimmer — and left his teammates with a margin too big to close.
Phelps went second and got the Americans up to sixth. Neil Walker and Jason Lezak tried furiously to catch the South Africans, to no avail. Swimming the anchor, Lezak expended so much energy on his first 50 that he was passed by Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands at the wall.
After finishing, Neethling climbed atop the starting block and flexed his muscles. Standing alongside, Phelps stared at the scoreboard in disbelief, huffing and puffing. Crocker, slowed by a sore throat for three days, was patted on the shoulder by Walker.
At least the Americans got a medal. The Australians were a disappointing sixth, unable to catch up even with Ian Thorpe swimming the anchor leg.
The Americans went with Hall, Walker, Gabe Woodward and Nate Dusing in the prelims. Walker swam the fastest leg of the four, which earned him a spot with Phelps, Crocker and Lezak for the evening final.
The U.S. coaches picked Phelps even though he didn't swim the 100 free at the U.S. Olympic trials last month, skipping the race that normally determines the relay pool. Instead, they based their decision on his time at the spring nationals in February.
That wasn't fair, Hall's agent argued.
"Knowing Gary, I'm sure he's disappointed," Arluck said. "I know how much he loves to race and wanted to be on the relay. That's one of his favorite events."
On Friday, Hall complained that Phelps was getting special treatment in his bid to break Spitz's record. Phelps swam his leg of the final in 48.74 — better than his performance at the February meet, but 0.01 slower than Hall's time in the morning.
"And everyone knows that Gary is now a good morning swimmer," Arluck said. "It just doesn't make sense."
Hall has said that Reese was pressured by USA Swimming and the media to put Phelps on the relay, ensuring he would have enough chances to go after the record. He's swimming five individual events in Athens and needed to be on all three relays.
While Hall wasn't on hand for the final, he did earn a bronze medal for swimming the prelim — the ninth medal of his career.
Woodward and Dusing, who also get medals, were part of the American contingent in the stands.
Phelps will have to swim the race of his life Monday night to keep Spitz in his sights.
The teenager is a definite underdog against Thorpe and also will have to contend with van den Hoogenband, the defending Olympic champion who upset Thorpe in Sydney.
Thorpe and Phelps got to race side-by-side in the 200 free Sunday night, but it was only a warmup for their dream showdown. Placed in the same semifinal heat, Thorpe cruised to the wall first in 1:46.65, touching ahead of Phelps' 1:47.08.
As if to show that it's more than just a two-man race, van den Hoogenband put up the fastest qualifying time while winning the other semifinal, 1:46.00. Also advancing was American Klete Keller, who won bronze behind Thorpe and Hackett in Saturday's 400 free.
The Americans don't have much time to put that relay out of their minds.
"To lose in that fashion is tough," Reese said. "It's not any fun at all."