ATHENS, Aug. 14 -- Australian Ian Thorpe pulled himself out of the pool after his gold medal victory in the 400-meter freestyle at the Summer Games on Saturday, and walked purposefully over to a section filled with delirious Australian teammates. There, he strolled slowly past, reaching high to slap as many hands as he could. Everyone looked more jubilant than he.
Moments after American Michael Phelps produced a world record victory in the 400 individual medley, Thorpe swam heavily, finishing more than three seconds off his world record time even as he claimed his second straight Olympic gold in the event. He said he had performed poorly. He looked as if he were towing along the entire Australian team.
Australia's Ian Thorpe appears to be carrying a lot of weight on his back as he wins gold in the 400-meter freestyle.
(Mark Baker -- AP)
Which is exactly how he felt. After the narrow victory in 3 minutes 43.10 seconds over fellow Aussie Grant Hackett, 3:43.36, and American Klete Keller, 3:44.11, Thorpe sank his face into the lane divider while hugging Hackett. He said later he nearly cried.
"It was a difficult experience here," said Thorpe, who won the event by nearly three seconds at the 2000 Games in Sydney. "It was tough out there. I am relieved the race is over."
Thorpe's and Phelps's victories on the first night of swimming helped inflame already high anticipation for Monday's 200 freestyle, in which they are expected to face one another, as well as Sunday's 4x100 relay, which could provide another matchup.
Their back-to-back races overshadowed a narrow victory by Ukraine's Yana Klochkova (4:34.83) over American Kaitlin Sandeno (4:34.95) in the 400 individual medley and a disappointing 4x100 relay for the U.S. women's team, which finished second to Australia after anchor leg Jenny Thompson -- who had anchored three straight Olympic victories -- got passed by Aussie Jodie Henry.
Though Thompson collected a record-tying 11th Olympic medal, she missed a chance for her ninth gold with a relay leg (53.77) nearly a second slower than Henry's (52.95).
But Sandeno, the fourth-place finisher at the last Olympics, didn't intend to come close again.
"Oh my gosh!" Sandeno shrieked after the race. "It's my best time by about 5-and-a-half seconds. I'd been stuck at 4:40 since the 2000 Olympics."
Thorpe's post-race comments were bereft of boasting. After a year of struggles, Thorpe wasn't about to be drawn into trash-talking, flag-waving or psyching of any sort.
Phelps flashed mega-watt smiles and talked about dreams coming true, but Thorpe described a nightmarish prelude to these Games.
In the last four years, he has watched Phelps surpass him as undisputed king of the sport. He has endured slumps, a coaching change and, at the Australian Olympic trials this summer, he fell off the starting blocks in the 400 final and was disqualified. The only reason he was able to defend his title here was that teammate Craig Stevens gave up his spot in the event.
"I made sure here at these Olympic Games: I get it," he said. "I understand what it's all about. It's not about competing. It's not about winning medals. It's about sharing the experience with friends. . . . I treasure this experience more."
Thorpe nearly had merely a silver or bronze to treasure. He took an early lead but got passed both by Hackett and Keller, who had the considerable disadvantage of racing in lane two. Thorpe, in lane five, had to come back from third place after 100 meters and second at 150 to win a race in which he owns nine of the 10 top performances ever.
"It was a super-close race," Hackett said. "To be .2 [second] away from him is very frustrating. . . . I knew if I had 10 more meters, I would have had him."
If Thorpe had 10 more meters, his heart might have burst.
"I was probably swimming the race for other people besides myself," Thorpe said. "I don't think I've ever done that before. . . . This has been a very emotional six months."
Thorpe and Phelps will compete in the 200 freestyle preliminaries Sunday morning. The field for Monday's final is likely to include that pair along with Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband, Hackett and Keller -- "a star lineup," Thorpe said.
Earlier, Phelps had made similar remarks, adding that he had long hoped to race Thorpe in a freestyle event. Phelps topped Thorpe in the 200 medley at last year's world championships, but the event was not one of Thorpe's specialties. It was no contest: Phelps crushed Thorpe, who was third.
Though the 200 free is Thorpe's event -- he owns the world record -- van den Hoogenband stole the gold at the Sydney Games, and Phelps plainly swam better Saturday.
Thorpe, though, said he intended to clear his head, and soon.
"I think my 200 will be much faster than my 400 tonight," he said. "It had better be."