Michael Phelps is Swimming. He is asked, frequently, what makes him tick. Competition, he will say. The idea of going faster, the pursuit of a single Olympic gold medal -- even though he could, potentially, win eight. He is 19, the focus of the Athens Games. In turn, he is focused on that task alone.
So what to make of Ian Crocker? He listens to Dylan. He tinkers with 'Berta, his '71 Buick Riviera named after the bluesy Eric Clapton tune "Alberta." He speaks about his deepening faith, not in a preachy manner, but because it grounds him, centers him, prepares him for success or failure, both in the pool and out. He is 21, and something of swimming's onion, with a new layer visible after another is peeled away.
And oh, by the way, he just might be the most significant threat to Phelps's quest for all those gold medals. It is Crocker, not Phelps, who will be favored in the 100-meter butterfly in Athens. It is Crocker who shocked Phelps at the 2003 world championships, swiping Phelps's world record. It is Crocker who, last month at the U.S. trials in Long Beach, Calif., did it again, bettering his own world mark in a blistering 50.76 seconds, leaving Phelps second.
"I know I wouldn't want to be the one that has to try to beat Crocker," said backstroker Aaron Peirsol, Crocker's teammate at the University of Texas. "Are you kidding? There's no one better in the butterfly."
That Crocker is in this position at all is a bit befuddling, really, for it is a long way from Portland, Maine, to the Olympics. Before Crocker qualified for the Sydney Games as an overwhelmed 17-year-old in 2000, no swimmer from his home state had ever been an Olympian. Maine has more than 35,000 square miles, yet not one Olympic-sized pool. The pool at the Portland elementary school where Crocker somehow developed his Olympic aspirations -- not to mention his talent -- is 25 yards long, "a hole in the ground," he said, where he put in countless hours with his coach, Sharon Power, of the Portland Porpoises Swim Club.
"I was told a lot, growing up in Maine, that if I wanted to make the Olympic team, I'd have to leave the state and go train somewhere else," Crocker said. "But I was blessed with a coach that knew what she was doing. If God has a purpose for you, he's going to find a way, and that's exactly what happened."
Yet part of what makes Crocker so intriguing is that his vision isn't so single-mindedly about swimming that the sport, alone, defines him. Rather, Crocker's personality is wonderfully multifaceted, one that grew out of necessity.
Crocker's parents noticed, at a very early age, how easily distracted he became. They bought him a GameBoy, just so he could get through dinner when they would eat out. More fulfilling diversions came later. First, his love for music, which begat an electric guitar in junior high school. As Rick and Gail Crocker would walk home through their quiet neighborhood, they could hear their son wailing away on Led Zeppelin's "Since I've Been Loving You."
This was not merely a hobby. Rather, the Crockers saw it as a necessary avocation. The truth was that Crocker suffered from attention deficit disorder, yet the family preferred not to have it diagnosed. One of Gail Crocker's brothers grew up in the 1960s with dyslexia, she said, and she saw how, because no one understood the problem, it affected him in school. It wouldn't be that way with Ian, she thought. Swimming would be one way to round him out, but there would be others.
"People often think that when you've got an elite athlete, you were the driving force," Gail Crocker said. "They'd say, 'You must have pushed him. How could he ever have done this much?'
"But he was in the driver's seat. We just kept asking him, 'Do you really want to do this?' When he said he did, we felt it was necessary to give him other activities. . . . I really didn't want Ian's self-esteem to be depleted from that learning disability. So we just supported it, and the support was finding some other activity that lit his fire so that he could enjoy some positive self-esteem away from the academic piece."
So Crocker pursued swimming aggressively, but not solely. He pursued music, a family favorite. Rick has stacks of LPs, and Ian's loves range not only from the Allman Brothers to Zeppelin, but to Gershwin and beyond. He now has a pair of electric guitars to go along with an acoustic and a classical. He loves not only the songs, but understanding the music, the sound each instrument makes.
When he grew old enough to drive, he pursued cars, another family love, for he had watched his father baby his 1976 Camaro, silver with red velour interior, a car that sits safely in the garage during Maine's brutal winters. When he first saw 'Berta -- in the spring before the 2000 Olympics, in the parking lot of a Portland supermarket -- he took his mother to check it out. He was still driving Esther, the '88 Oldsmobile Cutlass Sierra his great-grandmother had sold him for $1. But 'Berta -- goodness, what a ride.
"Mom," he said, "look at the fluid lines."
So began a love affair that ended with Crocker's parents finally buying the car for him after the 2000 Olympics, in which he won a gold medal as a member of the world record-setting medley relay team. They had it shipped to Austin, where Crocker was a freshman at Texas, dealing with studies and swimming and dorm life. 'Berta became another prescribed distraction, a friend he could jump into and drive on the open Texas highways, tunes and all. A hundred miles one way, turn around, a hundred miles back. Aaaaah.
"Cars, music, they're things I love, things I enjoy, things that I like to put my time into," Crocker said. "I love swimming. I swim for the experience and the show. But it can't be the only thing in my life."
There were more reasons to pursue balance. Even as he rose to swimming prominence, he harbored deep-seeded doubts that might have held him back. Introverted, he used music to make friends. If swimming became his whole life, there was the potential for disappointment, for isolation.
"In Long Beach [at the trials], you see people's dreams crushed," Gail Crocker said. "If that's all you have, if your ego and goals are in just one area, what happens next? To understand one's being and purpose in life as being able to use your God-given talents to the best, and then to know that whatever happens with your talents, you're on a journey -- and that journey's more valuable than any one activity."
The origins of that philosophy came to Crocker early. His mother remembers him calling her into his room, just when he was headed to bed, and they'd talk for an hour. "He would want to talk about why there was money in the world," Gail Crocker said. "He would have these thoughts about, 'If we got rid of all the money in the world, and everyone was just equal, there wouldn't be any problems.' "
His family is non-denominational Christian, though Crocker attended a Catholic high school for boys, where he took mandatory religion classes. When he arrived at Texas, he continued to think about religion, and became involved -- at the behest of fellow Olympian Josh Davis -- in Athletes in Action, a Christian group. Now, his faith is incorporated in his swimming, yet one doesn't dominate the other.
"God helps me bring out something that I don't know is in me," Crocker said.
Crocker wraps all this renaissance man stuff up in a nice, friendly package, complete with a soft smile across a soft face. A friend once told him, he said, "If you were any more laid-back, you'd be dead." It is only partially true.
"Don't be fooled," said U.S. men's coach Eddie Reese, who also coached Crocker at Texas. "He's like a hunting dog. He's just a lapdog -- until you shoot a bird. Then, watch out. That's Ian."
In Athens, Crocker will also swim the 100 freestyle and two relays. And in that 100 butterfly, he will race Phelps in what should be one of the Games's best matchups. When Crocker climbs onto the starting block at the Olympics -- be it against Phelps or someone else -- he will look composed, calm. But watch him just before the start, and you'll notice his leg bounce, up and down, up and down again. There, behind the laid-back facade -- not to mention behind all his other pursuits -- is the competitiveness that could bring him gold, Phelps or not.
"There's something about racing that just brings out a thrill," Crocker said. "It is like Eddie's metaphor. It's like a hunt. It just brings out something that's a lot deeper and doesn't get seen very much."