ATHENS, Greece – The kid couldn't catch the Thorpedo — and he won't be catching Mark Spitz (search), either.
Michael Phelps' (search) quest for seven gold medals ended after just three events, doomed by another bronze Monday night in the most anticipated race at the Olympic pool — the head-to-head showdown with Australia's Ian Thorpe (search) in the 200-meter freestyle.
Thorpe has ruled this event for years, but Phelps couldn't resist seeing what he could do against the man in black — part of the larger goal to break Spitz's record from the 1972 Munich Games (search).
His long arms churning smoothly through the azure water, Thorpe passed Pieter van den Hoogenband in the homestretch, finishing with an Olympic record of 1 minute, 44.71 seconds. The Dutchman's time was 1:45.23, while Phelps never caught the top two.
As he touched the wall, Thorpe quickly looked at the scoreboard and thrust a fist in the air, yelling as if to say "Take that!" when he saw a "1" beside his name — and a "2" beside van den Hoogenband.
Van den Hoogenband, the defending Olympic champion, pulled off a shocking upset of Thorpe four years ago at Sydney. He got off to a quick start and was more than 1 second under world-record pace at the halfway point, but he couldn't maintain it and finished with the silver.
"Well, now we are even," said Thorpe, who won the fifth gold medal of his career and second of the Athens Games.
The 19-year-old from Baltimore was third most of the way, setting an American record of 1:45.32 that was only good enough for bronze.
"It was tough racing the two greatest freestylers of all time," Phelps said. "I had fun out there. I did what I wanted to do."
Thorpe and van den Hoogenband quickly clasped hands, while an exhausted Phelps clung to a lane rope, watching a replay of the race on the video board. Finally, he came over to congratulate his two rivals, then turned to swim out of the pool on the opposite side.
On his way off the deck, Phelps turned to take one final glance at the scoreboard before he disappeared behind the stands.
Even though he'll fall short of Spitz, Phelps has plenty of swimming left in Athens. He returned to the pool just 52 minutes later for the semifinals of the 200 butterfly. There's still the very real possibility that he'll win eight medals — they just won't all be gold.
Spitz was in Athens for the Olympics and expected to attend the race. He has said he didn't mind losing his record, but it will remain his for at least another four years.
Two other Americans did claim gold on this night.
Natalie Coughlin (search), the top female swimmer on the American team, won the 100 backstroke, falling short of her own world record but holding off Kirsty Coventry of Britain. France's Laure Manaudou took bronze, her second medal of the games.
Coughlin, who failed to qualify for the 2000 Games and was felled by illness as last year's world championships, looked at the scoreboard with relief rather than ecstasy. She closed her eyes, smiled and waved to the fans.
"It's too hard to put into words," she said. "I have had so many ups and downs over the past years."
Aaron Peirsol was first in the men's 100 back, the first gold medal of his career. Markus Rogan of Austria claimed silver and Japan's Tomomi Morita held off American Lenny Krayzelburg for the bronze.
Krayzelburg, who won three golds in Sydney, fell short of a medal in his only individual event by just two-100ths of a second.
The U.S. team was shut out in the night's other final. Luo Xuejuan of China won gold in the 100 breaststroke, beating Australians Brooke Hanson and Leisel Jones. Three-time Olympian Amanda Beard was fourth and Tara Kirk sixth.
As for Phelps, he got off to a good start in his pursuit of Spitz, opening the Olympics with a world-record performance in the 400 individual medley.
But he settled for bronze when the American team faltered in the 400 freestyle relay on Sunday. Now, with only five races left, Spitz is out of reach.
Six gold medals would put Phelps in storied company. But because his audacious challenge fell short, he could be remembered as something of a failure at the Athens Games — the same perception that dogged Matt Biondi after he won "only" five golds at the 1988 Seoul Games.
"Will it crush him? No," said Debbie Phelps, the swimmer's mother. "He's already got a page in the history book."
Phelps is the greatest all-around swimmer in the world, and he didn't really need to swim the 200 free at the Olympics. But he knew it was his only chance to face Thorpe in an individual event, so the challenge was issued.
Phelps had nothing to be ashamed of, swimming faster than he ever has in the 200 by more than six-tenths of a second.
"He had an incredible swim," said Krayzelburg, co-captain of the U.S. men's team. "It's just that the other two guys were better."
"Michael is capable of going home with eight medals," Peirsol said. "In this day and age, that's fantastic. It's the Spitzian feat of our time."
An Olympics that has been plagued by poor crowds didn't have any worries on this night. The 10,000-seat pool was packed: orange-clad fans cheering on van den Hoogenband; Thorpe's supporters distinguished by their yellow and green attire; Phelps' backers waving American flags big and small.
The media tribune was overflowing with hundreds of reporters, all drawn to an event that has been hyped incessantly since Phelps entered and qualified for the 200 free at the U.S. Olympic trials last month.
The fans rose to their feet at the giants of the sport emerged from the ready room, heading to their respective starting blocks.
There was Thorpe, the world record holder and holder of eight of the nine fastest times in history. Beloved in his native Australia, the Thorpedo is known for the imposing black suit that covers everything except his head, hands and enormous feet.
There was van den Hoogenband, the defending Olympic champion. The "Flying Dutchman" swam down Thorpe at the Sydney Games, sending the Aussie Nation into a state of shock.
And, finally, there was Phelps, who lacks a catchy nickname but has become the world's greatest swimmer.
In the end, the Thorpedo held off Hoogie and the teenager — and ensured that Spitz's record will live on.