Michael Phelps wanted to swim against the best swimmers in the world. This evening, that take-on-all-comers attitude cost him a chance at Olympic history.

Ian Thorpe of Australia won the 200-meter freestyle in dramatic fashion at the Olympic Aquatic Center here, out-swimming perhaps the best field ever assembled in the event. Thorpe beat out rival Pieter van den Hoogenband over the final 50 meters, touching the wall in an Olympic-record time of 1 minute, 44.71 seconds. Dutchman van den Hoogenband was second in 1:45.23 and Phelps, the 19-year-old from Baltimore County, third in 1:45.32. The time was a personal best for Phelps -- indeed, faster than any American has ever swum -- but not enough.

Phelps, who a year ago set out on an improbable quest to match or surpass Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals at a single Olympics, thus took bronze, and will add that to the gold he won by winning the 400 individual medley on the meet's first night, and another bronze in the 4x100 freestyle relay. He now has just five events remaining, so his maximum take would be six golds -- what would still be a remarkable achievement.

The race was the most talked-about event of the Olympics thus far, and one of the most-anticipated in Olympic swimming history, with Phelps's pursuit of $1 million from swimsuit maker Speedo for matching Spitz's mark providing a backdrop.

Yet there could scarcely have been more worthy adversaries -- and, indeed, men expected to beat him. Thorpe is the world-record holder in the event, which is considered his specialty. His countryman, Grant Hackett, held the world record in 1999, and was just to Phelps's left in lane 2.

And van den Hoogenband beat both Australians on their home turf, at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. His swims in both the preliminary rounds, in which he swam faster than Thorpe by more than half a second and faster than Phelps by more than a second, as well as in the 400-meter freestyle relay Sunday night, in which he led the Dutch to silver, made him the prohibitive favorite, even in such a star-studded field.

But with the wind picking up and the setting sun casting a shadow over the complex, the event quickly became a two-man race. Van den Hoogenband, with legions of orange-clad Dutchmen cheering him on, led midway through, with Thorpe on his field. Phelps had separated himself from the rest of the field in third, but didn't look like a threat.

Over the final leg of the race, however, Phelps closed the gap -- just not enough. He nearly caught fading van den Hoogenband at the wall for the silver, but was just nine-hundredths of a second shy of that.

Americans Natalie Coughlin and Aaron Peirsol each followed Phelps's swim with gold-medal performances of their own. Coughlin won the women's 100 backstroke and Peirsol won the men's 100 backstroke.