Michael Phelps couldn’t catch the Thorpedo – and he won’t be catching Mark Spitz, either. Phelps’s quest for seven gold medals ended after just three events, doomed by another bronze yesterday night in the most anticipated race at the Olympic pool – the head-to-head showdown with Australia’s Ian Thorpe in the 200-meter freestyle. Thorpe has ruled this event for years, but Phelps couldn’t resist seeing what he could do against the man in black – part of the larger goal to break Spitz’s record from the 1972 Munich Games. Adding even more luster to the event was defending Olympic champion Pieter van den Hoogenband who pulled off a shocking upset of Thorpe four years ago at Sydney. Van den Hoogenband got off to a quick start and was more than 1 second under world-record pace at the halfway point. But he couldn’t maintain that pace and finished with the silver. His long arms churning smoothly through the azure water, Thorpe caught van den Hoogenband in the homestretch, finishing with an Olympic record of 1 minute, 44.71 seconds. The Dutchman’s time was 1:45.23, while Phelps never caught the top two. The 19-year-old from Baltimore was in third most of the way, setting an American record of 1:45.32 that was only good enough for third. «It takes a lot more out of you racing in the finals,» Phelps said. «I think it’s definitely a lot different from the trials, a whole lot more emotionally draining.» Phelps got off to a good start in his pursuit of Spitz, opening the Olympics with a world-record performance in the 400m individual medley. But he could do no better than bronze when the American team faltered in the 400m free relay on Sunday. Now, with only five races left, Spitz is out of reach. Six golds – not to mention the very real possibility of winning eight medals of varying colors – would put Phelps in storied company. But because his audacious challenge fell short, he could be remembered as something of a failure at the Athens Games. Phelps is the greatest all-around swimmer in the world, and he didn’t really need to swim the 200m free at the Olympics. But he knew it was his only chance to face Thorpe in an individual event, so the challenge was issued. Phelps had nothing to be ashamed of. He swam faster than he ever has in the 200, but it wasn’t fast enough. A defiant Thorpe touched the wall, quickly looked at the scoreboard and thrust a fist in the air, yelling as if to say «Take that!» when he saw a «1» beside his name. Thorpe and van den Hoogenband quickly clasped hands, while an exhausted Phelps clung to a lane rope, watching a replay of the race on the video board. Finally, he came over to congratulate his two rivals, then turned to swim out of the pool on the opposite side from everyone else. On his way off the deck, Phelps turned to take one final glance at the scoreboard before he disappeared behind the stands.