Throwback Thursday: When Ian Crocker Dazzled in 100 Butterfly in Montreal


22 February 2024, 03:01am

Throwback Thursday: When Ian Crocker Dazzled in 100 Butterfly in Montreal

In this Throwback Thursday, we celebrate the day in which Ian Crocker clocked 50.40 in the 100 meter butterfly. Racing at the 2005 World Championships in Montreal, the 22-year-old delivered a swim that belied reality and, over time, proved itself to be a decade ahead of its time.

Ian Crocker never sought the spotlight. It wasn’t his style. He’d much rather strum his guitar or restore a car. Under the radar was the preference of the Maine native. But when you possess major talent and duel with the biggest name in the sport, as was the case with Crocker, it’s not easy to escape the bright lights.

What can be controlled, however, is the way one operates, and Crocker was a master of the businesslike approach. Set goals. Work hard. Chase excellence. In a Hall of Fame career that saw him compete at three Olympic Games, Crocker frequently found success, and proved that his way worked. And on a summer evening in 2005 at the World Championships in Montreal, Crocker put together one of the greatest efforts the sport has seen: an unthinkable 50.40 in the 100 meter butterfly!


How Crocker arrived at that moment of athletic glory requires a recap of the prior years, and how he progressed from a rising talent into a world-class performer. After qualifying for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, which were held as his freshman year at the University of Texas was starting, Crocker showed his prowess Down Under. In addition to helping the United States to a gold medal in the 400 medley relay, Crocker just missed the podium in the 100 butterfly via a fourth-place finish and American record of 52.44.

His ascension was rapid from that point forward, as he followed a silver medal in the 100 fly at the 2001 World Championships with a title in the event at the 2002 Pan Pacific Championships. But it was at the 2003 World Champs in Barcelona where Crocker significantly enhanced his status and opened the door to what was possible in the 100 butterfly.

During the semifinals in Barcelona, Ukraine’s Andrii Serdinov (51.76) and American star Michael Phelps (51.47) exchanged world records and headed into the final expected to duel for the gold medal. Crocker, meanwhile, entered the final off a 52.31 clocking with a bronze-medal haul his likely best-case scenario.

Yet, when the championship race ended, it was Crocker who stood on the top step of the podium. Surging off the blocks, Crocker split 23.99 for the opening lap to take an advantage over Serdinov by 40-hundredths along with a 62-hundredth margin over Phelps.

While Phelps cut into Crocker’s lead over the closing 50 meters, there wasn’t enough room to completely erase the deficit. Both men went under the world record, Phelps at 51.10 and Crocker going 50.98 to not only crack the 52-second barrier for the first time, but to take the event into sub-51 territory.

“I mean, my goal going in was to go as fast as I could and see where that would take me,” Crocker said of his first world record. “I had faith it would take me far. I just didn’t know how far. My goal for two years now has been to go 51, and I guess I still haven’t made that goal.”


Although they had raced each other previously, the events of Barcelona officially launched the Phelps-Crocker rivalry, which saw several additional chapters written in the years ahead. At the 2004 United States Olympic Trials in Long Beach, Crocker lowered his world record to 50.76, with Phelps following in 51.15. A showdown at the Olympics in Athens loomed, and it was in the birthplace of the Olympics where Phelps caught Crocker in the final strokes to win by 4-hundredths of a second, 51.25 to 51.29.

The victory was one of six gold medals for Phelps, who won eight medals overall, and it gave him the right to handle the butterfly leg on Team USA’s 400 medley relay. Having already raced that leg in prelims, Phelps stepped aside and gave Crocker the duty. It was the ultimate in sportsmanlike gestures, and Crocker acknowledged the move as such. He then did his part on the relay, helping the United States prevail.


For Phelps, the 2005 World Champs offered an opportunity to experiment with a different schedule than he attacked in Athens. He replaced the 400 individual medley and 200 butterfly with the 400 freestyle and 100 freestyle, events that did not yield medals. But the 100 butterfly remained on Phelps’ schedule, which meant another clash with Crocker.

For Crocker, Montreal served as a chance at redemption. No, a title there would not equal an Olympic gold. Still, it was an opportunity to regain his status as The Man in the 100 butterfly. That was a title that now belonged to Phelps, based on his Olympic crown.

In the preliminaries and semifinals, Crocker left little doubt he was in peak form. He followed a 51.19 marker in the heats with a 51.08 outing in the semifinals. They were times only Crocker and Phelps had ever managed. But Phelps wasn’t in the same shape as Athens, and Crocker made the final into a personal showcase.

Leaving no question from the start, Crocker blasted a split of 23.51 for the opening 50 meters and came home in 26.89. The merged splits produced a world record of 50.40 and had the crowd at Parc Jean-Drapeau in a frenzy. As Crocker approached the wall, there was a moment in which a sub-50 possibility crossed the mind. In the end, Crocker took 36-hundredths off his previous global standard. Phelps was the runner-up in 51.65.

In the years ahead, the rivalry undoubtedly swung back in favor of Phelps. At the 2007 World Championships, where Phelps won seven gold medals, he replicated their Olympic duel by tracking down Crocker in the final meters to win by 5-hundredths. At the next year’s Olympic Games, Phelps used an epic finish to edge Serbia’s Milorad Cavic by 1-hundredth, with Crocker placing fourth.


The time Crocker brought to the scoreboard on July 30, 2005, was considered Beamonesque, such was his gap over the opposition and how he lowered the previous record by a sizable chunk. Although his record was broken in 2009, amid the super-suit craze that temporarily changed the dynamic of the sport, it wasn’t until Singapore’s Joseph Schooling went 50.39 for gold at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro that the record was bettered by an athlete in textile.

Today, Crocker’s brilliance remains competitive. Seventeen years after it was produced, Crocker’s 50.40 would have won silver at the 2022 World Championships, just 26-hundredths outside of gold.

“I always assume that whenever I race against Michael, it’s going to take something amazing like a world record to win,” Crocker said in Montreal. “It’s definitely faster than I thought I could go, but you can’t put limits on yourself.”

That mentality certainly paid off.

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