Unlikely champion

LeBlanc, Pam

There was a time when Ian Crocker was such a slow learner, his local YMCA coach relegated him to a separate pool until he learned the basics. Today, he’s got the basics down pat-with an Olympic gold medal and a world record to his credit with hopes for more come Athens 2004.

It didn’t seem likely, back when Ian Crocker was a kid taking his first swimming lessons at home in Portland, Maine, that he’d ever reach this point.

After all, while his sister, Amy, had whizzed through every level of the community swim program in less than a month, 6-year-old Ian was stuck with the beginners. And a few years later, at the local YMCA, Crocker wasn’t even allowed to swim in the same pool as the rest of the group. The coach relegated him to a separate pool until he learned the basics.

“I figured it wasn’t my thing,” Crocker said.

But back in Austin after a whirlwind summer that included smashing the world record in the 100 meter butterfly at the World Championships in Barcelona and a trip to Athens to check out the locale of the upcoming Olympic Games, it’s obvious Crocker has found his “thing.”

Today, the 21-year-old University of Texas senior is practically humming with enthusiasm about the upcoming year. His 6-foot-4-inch frame is flopped in a chair in an office on the UT campus. He rumples his short blond hair and fidgets with the flip-flops on his feet that have been precariously taped together. His green eyes are smiling.

And it’s no wonder.

Crocker, who already owns one Olympic gold medal for swimming the butterfly leg of the 400 meter medley relay in Sydney in 2000, is poised to make the U.S. Olympic team in 2004. What’s more, his coach at Texas, Eddie Reese, has been named coach of the men’s team.

Stunning Upset

It’s been an eventful few months. At the World Championships in July, Crocker edged past the favorite in the 100 meter butterfly, lopping more than a second off his own best time and stunning most everyone who watched.

“It was the biggest surprise of the meet that he beat Michael (Phelps) and went that fast,” Reese said. “He was the most surprised person in the pool, and next was me.”

Crocker and Reese may have been stunned, but Crocker’s teammates weren’t.

“All the guys on the team knew Ian was well overdue,” said Aaron Peirsol, who set another world record in Barcelona along with Crocker in the 400 medley relay. “It was just a matter of him knowing what he was capable of and doing it. He is so insanely fast, and he has the potential to go even faster. Coach Reese and Ian both said they were shocked, but the guys at Texas have just been waiting for a race like that to happen.”

Peirsol says Crocker had worried earlier in the summer about being tapered and ready to swim at Worlds. “After he set the world record, he came over to me and said, Tm finally tapered.’ I told him that I sure hoped so,” Peirsol said. He also doubts the pressure of holding the world record will make any difference to Crocker.

“As a swimmer, you are always trying to break your best time. It’s definitely a responsibility, but Ian is the type of guy that won’t allow it to affect him,” Peirsol said. “He’s already had the responsibility of owning an Olympic gold medal, and he’s obviously thrived since then. I think with something like a world record, you have to say to yourself that you’ve done it before and you want to do it again, if not faster.”

Critical Adjustment

Since coming to Texas, Crocker has been a dedicated athlete, clocking hour after hour in the pool. But a year ago, he adjusted his training schedule, spending more time doing long distance work and adding sprint training at the beginning of the summer. Before, he’d been doing middle distance training almost exclusively. The change, he believes, led to the record.

Going into Worlds, Crocker set his sights on lowering his PR of 52.21 and cracking the 52-second barrier.

He did one better, recording a sub-51-second time and breaking the world record with a 50.98 in the 100 meter butterfly.

“I knew that I had to get out fast and hold on if I had any chance of winning, because Michael has such a fast second 50,” Crocker said. The race went according to plan. “Because of my taper, I had plenty of speed on the first 50 and it didn’t cost me much on the second 50.”

“Plenty of speed”? he split a scorching 23.99-fastest first 50 in history.

Crocker knew he had a chance when he didn’t see Phelps’ splashes out of the corner of his eye during the second half of the race. “I felt like I wasn’t slipping in the water,” he said. “Normally in the second 50, I try to increase the tempo, and I’ve noticed I tend to slip. My focus was to hold the water and not necessarily spin my wheels.”

When he saw his time posted on the scoreboard at the end of the race, he thought it must be a mistake. “It was amazing,” he said. “I was excited, but at the same time there was a little bit of disbelief-I was thinking, ‘If this is a joke, it’s a cruel one.'”

Sharon Power, who coached Cracker when he swam with the Portland Porpoise Swim Club in Maine from the time he was 14 until he was ] 8, knew it wasn’t a joke. When she first saw him swim, she knew he was incredibly talented. “I knew he had potential-all you had to do was look at him in the water and you could tell,” she said.

Her reaction to Crocker’s performance in Barcelona? “Finally. In a word, finally. 1 knew he was capable of a 50-point. For me, it was just a case of when the heck are you going to do it?

“We talked about a world record when he was here, about him being capable of it at some point in his career,” Power said. “He wasn’t capable of it when he was with me because he was too young and too small, but I felt he would grow to that.”

Cracker’s victory sets up what could be an ongoing dual in the 100 butterfly with Phelps, who specializes in longer distances such as the 200 and 400. The Texas swimmer believes that’s a good thing.

Last summer, Phelps beat Crocker and Cracker’s American record in the 100 butterfly at a meet in Fort Lauderdale. Ultimately, it worked to Cracker’s advantage. “That was kind of a difficult blow for me, but it fired me up to tty to find different ways to train, like going in the long distance lanes,” he said.

Crocker knows Phelps won’t be content to let him keep the crown for long.

“I realized right away Michael wasn’t going to take what happened in Barcelona lightly,” Crocker said. That will mean more hard work ahead. The next time the two meet will probably be at the Olympic Trials next summer.

More than Swimming

After Worlds in Barcelona in July, Crocker and a contingent of nine other swimmers flew to Greece to take a look at the site for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Reese joined him for the three-day tour. The competition pools there are not yet finished, and the Olympic Village is far from complete, but the group got an idea of what to expect.

Crocker enjoyed the trip, but was happy to go home to Portland, Maine, for a week before reporting to Austin for the fall semester at the University of Texas.

Despite his record, he isn’t all about swimming. Spend more than 15 minutes with him, and talk inevitably turns to hot rods and music.

As for cars, he loves just about anything built between 1955 and 1973.

“Every car was different,” he glows. “They all had such character on their own. Now it’s like every car comes out of the same mold.”

It’s an interest he says he inherited from his father and his uncles. One of Crocker’s most prized possessions is a 1971 Buick Riviera, which he is souping up and restoring. “I call it a sleeper,” Crocker said. “You roll up next to a Corvette, and they think you can’t beat them….They’re wrong,” he chuckles.

To blow off steam last year, Crocker would race the Riviera at a drag strip in the nearby town of Seguin on Friday nights. Right now, the car is sitting in his garage, in need of a new motor and a new red paint job. But that will come-Crocker hopes to have his car running again by December. In the meantime, he’ll be driving a 1995 blue-and-silver Chevy pickup he bought from his dad.

Crocker will have to hold off on a few other dreams, too. He wants a Harley Davidson motorcycle, but Reese doesn’t allow any of the Longhorn swimmers to ride motorcycles while they swim for Texas. And he’ll have to wait to grow long hair that hangs to his shoulders-something else he’s dreamed of. Right now, the chlorine in the pool keeps Crocker’s hair from growing past his ears.

Crocker loves sushi and barbecue, and hanging out with his friends. But one thing he doesn’t do well, according to Power, the coach back in Maine, is golf.

“We saw him hit a ball and it went backward,” she laughs. “Another time, we saw him swing a club, and the club went farther than the ball. I used to say, ‘It’s a good thing you’re a good swimmer, kid.'”

When it’s not cars, it’s music. Today, Crocker is wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Bob Dylan across the front.

“Music has been an escape from the daily grind since eighth-grade, when I got my first guitar,” he said. “It’s a good way to meet people, hang out with friends and escape from thoughts of swimming and school.”

Crocker has three acoustic and two electric guitars. He sometimes sings while he plays, but only in the comfort of his own home. He lists Dylan-whom he’s seen in concert five times-among his favorite entertainers.

“He’s a pioneer. He’s not looking to please everybody-he’s looking to grow in himself,” Crocker said.

As is Crocker. Christianity is important in Crocker’s life. He calls his swimming a journey in faith.

“When you get behind the blocks, there are a lot of pressures from team-mates, coaches, family, friends and, of course, yourself. To be able to hand it over to faith and not feel that pressure frees you to do things like drop a second,” Crocker said.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

For now, Reese wants Crocker to enjoy what he accomplished in Barcelona and not worry too much about what comes next. But, ultimately, there is a goal.

“He’s been working real hard and deserved that,” Reese said of the world record. “Our plan is to get faster-that’s the name of the game.” Crocker, for one, tk believes what Reese says.

“Eddie has been one of those guys who’s been around the sport so long, you can’t help but trust everything he says,” Crocker said. (“He’s a good coach and an encyclopedia for swimming.”

Crocker also has the support of his family members, who have traveled around the world to watch him compete. “It’s been nice to be able to show them different places in the world,” he said of his parents. “I like to think it’s rewarding for them at this point for all the work they did to support me growing up.”

This fall, Cracker’s training regimen includes an hour-and-a-half of swimming from 6 to 7:30 a.m. three times a week, followed by an hour-and-a-half of dryland training and weightlifting, plus two hours of swimming in the evening. Again, he’ll focus on long distances.

He’s looking forward to the upcoming NCAA season, and then the Olympic Trials next summer in Long Beach, Calif. The motivation level of all swimmers increases during Olympic years, and this coming year is no exception, he said.

Power just wants him to do his best: “I think he can go faster, but it all depends on how the year goes. If he has a good year, he’ll go faster-he’s got it in him. He’s got a great club, a great coach, great teammates….”

Crocker doesn’t have just the 100 butterfly to look forward to, either. The 400 medley relay in Barcelona was made up of three Longhorns-Crocker, Peirsol and Brendan Hansen. That trio plans to be back even faster.

“I think our 400 medley relay next year is going to be pretty incredible,” said Peirsol. “We had three Texas guys on the team in Barcelona, and we were able to set a world record. Our relay last year was pretty dominant, but we’re going to see if we can do even better this coming year.”

That kind of enthusiasm can only mean good things in 2004 for Crocker and the rest of the Longhorn squad.

“Everybody’s mindset is really healthy,” Crocker said. “And definitely after the past couple of weeks, my confidence level has gone up. I’m ready to go and have a good Trials and take it one step at a time-I think next year is looking good.”

Pam LeBlanc is a staffwriter for the Austin American-Statesman in Austin, Texas.

Copyright Sports Publications, Inc. Oct 2003

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