ATHENS, Greece – It still could be a great Olympics for Michael Phelps (search). Yet no matter how well the teenager from Baltimore swims from now on, Mark Spitz's record is out of reach.
Ian Thorpe (search) made sure of that.
The Australian star spoiled Phelps' bid to win seven gold medals with a victory in the 200-meter freestyle Monday night. Phelps settled for bronze for the second consecutive night, ensuring that Spitz's 32-year-old record is safe.
The 19-year-old from Baltimore swam the fastest 200 of his career, but it wasn't enough against Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband (search) of the Netherlands. Thorpe overhauled van den Hoogenband in the closing meters, finishing with an Olympic record of 1 minute, 44.71 seconds. The Dutchman won silver in 1:45.23. Phelps was third most of the way, setting an American record of 1:45.32.
"How can I be disappointed? I swam in a field with two of the fastest freestylers of all time, and I was right there with them," he said.
But there still were gold medals for the Americans on the third night of competition.
Natalie Coughlin (search) of Concord, Calif., won the 100 backstroke, falling short of her own sub-minute world record, and Aaron Peirsol of Irvine, Calif., won the men's 100 backstroke.
Heading into Tuesday night's 200 butterfly, Phelps remained on course to win eight medals — and six of them could be gold. He opened the eight-day meet by winning the 400 individual medley in world-record time Saturday and earned a bronze in the 400 freestyle relay Sunday.
But Spitz's elusive record of seven golds in world-record time at the 1972 Munich Games won't be erased at these Olympics. Spitz had said he was rooting for Phelps.
"I tried to do something he did, and I didn't do it," Phelps said. "I'm already successful. It was a great opportunity I had, something I'll always remember."
Phelps didn't need to swim the 200 free, but he wanted to race Thorpe in an individual Olympic event. He lowered his personal best by more than six-tenths of a second, but the Aussie was better.
Thorpe had expressed concern that Phelps could be deemed a failure for anything less than winning eight golds.
"That was such a lofty goal," said Tom Malchow, the U.S. men's captain. "That's done, but Michael still has the ability to accomplish some super amazing things. If he gets four or five, it's still an amazing feat."
Phelps returned to the pool 52 minutes after his big race for the semifinals of the 200 butterfly. "Now, it's just come out and try to swim as fast as I can," he said.
In the 100 backstroke, Coughlin held off Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe, who won silver, and France's Laure Manaudou took bronze, to go with the gold she won in the 400 free.
Coughlin, who failed to qualify for the 2000 Games and got sick at last year's world championships, was relieved rather than ecstatic.
"It's too hard to put into words," she said. "I have had so many ups and downs over the past years."
In the men's 100 back, Markus Rogan of Austria won silver and Japan's Tomomi Mortia earned bronze — just two one-hundreths of a second ahead of Lenny Krayzelburg, the gold medalist from Sydney.
American women failed to medal in the 100 breaststroke, won by Luo Xuejuan of China. Australians Brooke Hanson and Leisel Jones won silver and bronze, respectively. Amanda Beard of Irvine, Calif., was fourth and Tara Kirk of Bremerton, Wash., sixth.