-- The rivals paced silently beside each other in the ready room, stood nervously side by side at the starting blocks, launched themselves in unison at the sound of the starter's buzzer.
Whoever won got the gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly, and the right to race for the United States in the coveted final of the medley relay Saturday night, the last swimming event of the Athens Olympics.
Friday night, Maryland's Michael Phelps, 19, in one of the most breathtaking races of the Games, edged teammate Ian Crocker, 21, for the gold medal, and then stunned the swimming world by giving up his medley slot to Crocker.
It was a gesture of grace, and sportsmanship, with a touch of common sense.
The race had been ridiculously close: Phelps won by .04 of a second, with a brilliant touch at the wall. And Crocker has a much better relay takeoff, according to Phelps and U.S. coaches, and could do better Saturday.
But Phelps, who took his fifth gold medal with the victory, had fairly won the right to participate in the relay, and instead chose a spot in the bleachers Saturday for a race he had said he was dying to swim.
It also made Friday's triumph Phelps's last swim of an Olympics in which he has been the most celebrated athlete. He is tied with legendary American Mark Spitz, who was on hand, for the most swimming gold medals in one Olympiad in individual events. Phelps has four golds from individual events and one from a relay. Spitz netted four individual golds and three from relays in Munich in 1972.
Phelps said he saw Spitz in the stands, and Spitz held up four fingers in salute. Coming into Athens, Phelps had been trying to match Spitz's record total of seven golds but fell short.
Although Phelps swam the relay preliminary Friday morning, and thus would be entitled to whatever medal the U.S. team won in the final, his decision came as a shock.
"This kind of had to come from Michael," U.S. Coach Eddie Reese said at a news conference. "It's a hell of a gesture."
Phelps, sitting beside Reese in his white warmup suit with blue and red trim, said it was a tough decision.
"But Ian is one of the greater relay swimmers on the U.S. team," he said. "I am willing to give him a chance and step up, and hopefully we can win."
"This is the decision that I chose," he continued. Saturday night "I will be in the stands, and I will be cheering as hard as I can for the U.S. team. . . . We came into this meet as a team, and we're going to be leaving it as a team."
In the medley relay, all four strokes -- butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle -- are swum, each by a different member of the team. Phelps and Crocker were vying to swim the butterfly leg.
In the 100-meter butterfly, Phelps's time was 51.25 seconds to Crocker's 51.29. Phelps had trailed Crocker from the beginning to the very last strokes. Reese said Phelps was actually behind at the end but managed to get his hand on the wall before Crocker.
Crocker, who did not know of Phelps's decision when he spoke to reporters about an hour before Phelps, later said he was near tears when he heard the news.
"I'm kind of speechless," he told an official at USA Swimming, the sport's governing body. "I feel like it was a decision that only Michael could make. . . . I feel like it's a huge gift that is difficult to accept but makes me want to go out and tear up the pool" Saturday.
"I couldn't be more proud," he said. "I'm going to do everything I can to make it feel like it was the right choice."
Phelps's coach, Bob Bowman, who is also an assistant on the Olympic team, said he and Phelps had casually discussed the possibility of letting Crocker swim the final.
Bowman said Phelps raised the issue again after he accepted the gold medal.
"Michael said that's what he felt like was the right thing to do," Bowman said. "What I suggested was whatever was in his heart was the thing that he should do. . . . In his heart, he feels like Ian deserves a chance."
Phelps, a powerful and versatile athlete, has earned millions through corporate endorsements. He drives a Cadillac Escalade and trains under Bowman at North Baltimore Aquatic Club.
Crocker, a soft-spoken Maine native, plays the guitar and is restoring an old Buick. He trained at the University of Texas under Reese.
Their rivalry dates from last summer, when Phelps was in the process of setting five world records at a meet in Spain but was stunned by Crocker in the 100 butterfly. Crocker notched a world record in that race, with a time of 50.98 seconds.
Phelps was so bothered that he tore a photograph of Crocker from a magazine and hung it in his bedroom in his mother's townhouse in Baltimore County as a motivator.
Their first rematch was May 22 at a meet in Santa Clara, Calif., where Phelps beat Crocker in a time of 52.39.
The two met again last month at the U.S. Olympic trials in Long Beach, Calif., where Crocker got revenge, easily beating Phelps in a world record time of 50.76. That record still stands.
Phelps came in second, in 51.15, but the race was the last of 17 in which he had competed at the trials.
Phelps struck back here Thursday, beating Crocker in a semifinal. But Crocker had not been swimming well. He had a dreadful first leg of the 400 freestyle relay Sunday, coming in dead last. The U.S. team, which included Phelps, had to struggle back for a bronze medal.
Reese said Crocker had been suffering from a sore throat for several days. It was also Crocker's first swim at the Olympics.
But Crocker also swam poorly in the heats of the 100 freestyle Tuesday, failing to make it to the semifinals.
Phelps said Friday that he had taken Crocker's malaise into account. "He wasn't feeling too well," Phelps said. "He deserved another shot."