Call the Lifeguard

As the U.S. swimming team's Olympic fortnight got rolling over the weekend, heat was the overriding theme in all of the media accounts and on everybody's minds. The sun over the pool in Athens: hot. The water: hot. Michael Phelps: hot. Amanda Beard's photos in FHM magazine: hot. The U.S. team's overall gold medal prospects: red hot.

So maybe, in retrospect, it should've been seen as a bad omen that the conditions at the Olympic Aquatic Centre last night were surprisingly chilly. A stiff wind whistled through the open arena throughout the evening session, churning up a pool surface that is usually as calm as a pond. Athletes who dressed light borrowed jackets from their teammates. And by the time racing ended for the night, the expressions on the faces of American swimmers were frozen--in shock, in disgust, in confusion, in dejection. A team that was supposed to set this pool on fire had instead, through two days, gotten a cold shower. Were it not for Michael Phelps's dominant, and expected, performance in the 400-meter individual medley on opening night, the U.S. team would be staring at a golden goose egg.

First came Brendan Hansen's surprise defeat in the 100-meter breaststroke--an event in which he holds the world record--to Japan's Kosuke Kitajima. In the biggest race of his life to date, Hansen swam a full second off his record pace and touched the wall 17 hundredths of a second after Kitajima. Then came the real disaster, the 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay, in which the U.S. expected gold or silver--not unreasonable, since an American team has never done worse. But when Ian Crocker, the quartet's opening-leg swimmer, completed his 100-meter leg, the scoreboard at the far end of the pool displayed something shocking: the U.S. was in 8th place--dead last--and Crocker had swam a 50.05, which would turn out to be the slowest leg of any swimmer in the entire race by nearly half a second. Panic rippled through the American contingent. It was the equivalent, in swimming terms, of the U.S. men's basketball team being down by 22 points at halftime to a no-name, also-ran like, say, Puerto Rico. (Ahem.) Just imagine what must've been going through Phelps's mind as he waited to swim the Americans' second leg. Think he's ever dove into a pool in last place? Under conditions he's probably never faced before--swimming from way behind is a different ballgame, physically and mentally, than swimming from either in front or in the pack--Phelps brought the team up to sixth place. The last two swimmers, Neil Walker and Jason Lezak, dragged the team up to third. Given the disastrous start, the team was surely relieved to come away with the bronze.

What came next should've been no surprise. Whenever performance falls well short of expectation, fingers get pointed, hindsight gets indulged and controversies get wind in their sails. Team USA coach Eddie Reese, knowing his squad has six days to turn its fortunes around, tried to move on but the media--and his own athletes--weren't about to let him. Hansen's teammate, backstroker Aaron Peirsol, threw the first bomb, telling reporters that Kitajima had performed an illegal dolphin kick, a deliberate downward kicking motion or thrust, early in the 100-meter breaststroke race that propelled him to victory. Lezak eagerly seconded the accusation after the relay final. (Similar charges dogged Kitajima at the world championships last summer, where the Japanese star set two records.) In fairness to Peirsol and Lezak, they're probably right. But as Reese said afterward, "there was no whistle, there is no foul." And more importantly, anyone who can read a clock and a time sheet knows that Kitajima didn't win the race. Hansen lost it. If he had swum anywhere close to his record time, a dolphin kick or three couldn't have stopped him.

The relay mess was the bigger, and far knottier, story. During a press conference after the race, Reese confirmed whispers that Crocker had been ill with a nasty sore throat for days and had declined to take antibiotics, which sometimes adversely affect performance. One has to wonder now, though, if antibiotics adversely affect performance as much as a nasty sore throat. Crocker swam into the forceful headwind during his first 50 meters, flipping in fourth place, and then drowned on the back stretch, swimming a somnambulant 26.41 seconds. Afterward, Reese, the head coach at the University of Texas, stood by Crocker, a star swimmer at the University of Texas. "If somebody had told me Ian Crocker was gonna go that slow, there's no way I would've believed it," the coach said. "He just can't go that slow. Not in my mind, not in his mind." But surely Reese and his coaches had noticed during workouts that Crocker was not swimming well? "We had to roll the dice."

Actually, no, they didn't. A healthy Gary Hall Jr., who was bumped from the final line-up after posting only a decent split time in the preliminary round, was available to swim. But Hall had ripped Reese earlier in the week for putting Phelps on the relay team even though the young phenom didn't swim the 100-meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic Trials, usually the qualifying barometer for the relay team. Was Reese retaliating by snubbing Hall and protecting his own college star? For weeks, the coach has been preaching that "fast is more important than fair." At the critical moment, though, it seemed that Reese had changed his mind.

In fairness to Reese, if Hall had swum and delivered his usual time--just under 49 seconds--Team USA still would've finished in second place behind the victorious South Africans. Or would they? As the U.S. media contingent gathered on the shuttle ride back home to file their stories, the speculation began. If Hall had started the race in Crocker's place, Phelps would've dove into the pool in the middle of the pack, not at the back, where the wake from the seven swimmers ahead of him gave him a turbulent ride. (Phelps's coach Bob Bowman said after the race that it was definitely a factor.) If Phelps and Walker had been able to give the team a better boost, Lezak wouldn't have had to swim like a bat out of hell in his opening 50 in a futile attempt to catch the South Africans--and then maybe he wouldn't have died down the stretch, allowing the Netherlands' Pieter van den Hoogenband to pass him for the silver. And no one should underestimate the mental impact of panic on the three final swimmers, who suddenly had to swim a race that none of them, in their worst nightmare, ever expected to swim.

But that's a lot coulds and shoulds and maybes, none of which will change the color of the American medals. (And if you think the anger and second-guessing is bad on the U.S. side, just imagine what's happening in swimming-mad Australia, where the team plummeted from champions in 2000 to sixth here in Athens.) Asked during the post-race press conference what he'll say to his team to get them back on track, Reese drily replied: "Don't do that again."

Who will the team look to in the hopes of getting back on track? Who else? Young Mr. Phelps. Tonight, he'll face off with Australia's Ian Thorpe and Van den Hoogenband in the 200-meter freestyle, a race the Aussie press has already dubbed "the race of the century." Swimming is typically thought of as an individual sport, but legendary athletes have always made their mark by putting a team on their backs and lifting everyone's performance. Team USA will count on Phelps to do that tonight. He could get some help. Phelps's multidisciplinary female counterpart, the monstrously talented and under-hyped Natalie Coughlin, should win gold tonight in the 100-meter backstroke, her best event; Peirsol, meanwhile, is favored to win tonight in the same event on the men's side. But those events are the undercards. Phelps's race is the coup de grace, not just of the night but potentially of the entire Athens Olympics. With a surprise win, he could bring back the heat to this suddenly very cool team.