INDIANAPOLIS — Michael Phelps has always been a little obsessed with numbers, to the point where they sometimes pop up in his dreams. But over the last four years, no number has rattled around inside his head more than 50.40. It represented the world record time in the 100-meter butterfly.
It belonged, though, to American Ian Crocker, who set that mark in 2005 in a race in which he beat Phelps by more than a full second. The memory of that race still makes Phelps furious, and Crocker's record, until Thursday night, remained out of his reach, almost taunting him.
But with a determined and focused swim inside the Indiana University Natatorium, Phelps finally got it back, touching the wall in a stunning 50.22 seconds. It was the highlight of another exciting night at U.S. nationals, one that also featured Dara Torres making the world championships team in the 50-meter freestyle at age 42.
When Phelps touched the wall, he turned to the scoreboard, whipped off his goggles, yanked off his two swim caps, and shook the water from his face and glared up at his time, almost in anger. It took him a good 15 seconds before he smiled, but the look on his face revealed an unmistakable truth: He expected to grab this record. And now he finally had.
"This is something that I really, really wanted to accomplish," Phelps said. "Crock and I had a lot of great history, a lot of great races with one another. I've wanted that record ever since he took it in '03 worlds. . . . After the race, you could tell I was pretty fired up and excited."
Phelps now owns five individual world records: the 100 butterfly, the 200 butterfly, the 200 freestyle, the 200 individual medley and the 400 individual medley. No other person in the world has more than two. He was also a member of three American relay teams that hold world records.
"Everything I've done is something I've wanted to do and something I've dreamed of," Phelps said.
Phelps paid tribute to Crocker several times after the race. For years, their duels were some of the most exciting in swimming. In 2003 at the World Championships in Barcelona, Spain, Phelps grabbed the world record in the 100-meter butterfly for the first time (51.47) in the semifinals, but Crocker took it away the next night (50.98). Two years later at the 2005 World Championships in Montreal, Crocker handed Phelps the worst defeat of his career, going 50.40 while Phelps went 51.65.
"Honestly, in the race where Ian broke the record, that is the worst that Michael has ever been beaten," said Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman. "I remember Michael got out [of the pool] and said 'What happened? I want to put a bag over my head.' I said 'Me too. Let's get out of here.' That was an amazing record, and that's why it stood the test of time."
Crocker, who retired after the Beijing Olympics, sent Phelps a text message recently wishing him luck and telling his old rival he wanted him to break the record.
"That meant a lot from a competitor, a friend and a classy guy," Phelps said. "He and I had amazing battles back and forth, and those are something I'll definitely miss."
Meanwhile, Torres won the 50-meter freestyle but wasn't thrilled with her time (24.43).
"My coach was telling me I probably lost four or five tenths [of a second] on the start," said Torres, who has been swimming despite a knee injury. "The adrenaline kind of took over so I didn't really feel it.
"It's a great feeling to be able to be out there and still race [at age 42], but that time won't medal at the world championships," Torres said.