Man to Beat? It’s Crocker

Times Staff Writer

Chalk up another one for the poster boy.

For the last year, Ian Crocker’s face on a poster was the first thing Michael Phelps saw every morning and the last thing he saw every night. After losing to Crocker in the 100-meter butterfly a year ago at the world championships in Barcelona, Spain, Phelps’ only loss of 2003, he put up the poster and imagined himself exacting revenge.

But when Phelps surfaced after Tuesday’s 100-meter butterfly at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Long Beach, there was Crocker, still in front of him.

At this rate, Phelps may have to wallpaper his room with Crocker’s likeness.


When the race ended Tuesday, there was no wild demonstration of joy from Crocker. No clenched fist pounding the air. That’s not Ian Crocker.

While much of the media attention has been on Phelps this week and his bid to equal or surpass the seven gold medals won by Mark Spitz at the 1972 Olympics, Crocker has demonstrated little emotion, little fire. He keeps it inside.

“I have a chocolate Labrador,” said Eddie Reese, Crocker’s coach on the U.S. Olympic team and at the University of Texas. “She is a 75-pound lap dog until someone shoots a duck or a dove. Then, she’s a 75-pound torpedo who is going to get that [duck or dove] before any other dog in the field. That’s kind of like Ian.”

As he was in Barcelona, Crocker was again a torpedo on Tuesday. In Barcelona, he beat Phelps in a world-record time of 50.98 seconds. Tuesday, Crocker broke that record with a 50.76 to Phelps’ 51.15. That should have been worth at least a whoop or a holler from Crocker.

“It was definitely a great feeling, but I was a little reserved,” he said, “I suppose because I know there is so much more to go.”

He has already come a long way from his roots in Portland, Maine. Now that he has become a key member of the Texas Longhorn swim team, Crocker gets back to Portland for only one or two weeks a year.

Being one of Reese’s devoted disciples, and practicing 25 hours a week, doesn’t leave time for recreational traveling.

“Eddie Reese is just one of those coaches,” Crocker said. “If you come to his program with the desire to get faster, with the understanding that there are lots of sacrifices, and you open yourself up to it, he will mold you into what it takes to be a champion.”

While Crocker may use the word sacrifice, he doesn’t really see his hours spent in the pool that way. He’d much rather be churning through the water, he said, than joining his classmates off-campus for fun and games.

“Instant gratification is fake,” Crocker said. “What swimming teaches is that there is something real about hard work.”

When he’s not in the pool, Crocker gets his gratification from listening to the music of Bob Dylan or the Grateful Dead, playing one of his five guitars or working on his 1971 Buick Riviera.

His Texas teammate, Aaron Peirsol, who also beat Phelps earlier this week, calls Crocker, “the best swimmer I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t have to make a big deal out of it. He knows how talented he is. He knows he deserves this.”

Phelps conceded that Crocker deserved his victory Tuesday.

“He was more prepared and has been for the past two times,” Phelps said. “When I was coming home in the last 50 [meters in Tuesday’s race] and saw him out of the corner of my eye, I knew the race was over.”

Crocker said he was under no illusion that their rivalry was over, whether or not that poster stays on Phelps’ wall.

“It helped me to know that somebody has been shooting for me,” Crocker said. “Now that I have passed him again, I know he is not going to give up and that will continue to motivate me.”

While Phelps said he has much work to do in the pool before next month’s Olympic Games in Athens, Crocker mapped out an uncharacteristic game plan.

“I’m going to work on getting as much rest as possible,” he said, “and really let it rip in Athens.”

While he’s getting all that rest, might he put up a poster of Phelps by his bed?

“The only thing I’d put on my wall,” he said, “is a poster of my Riviera.”