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Crocker could win gold in Athens

Malls scared him. That told Ian Crocker something was wrong. Crocker loved store windows, loved looking, loved buying. Now he avoided all of it. He got nervous at the idea of public places, where people would see him and maybe whisper about him. His skin got hot just thinking about malls. So he didn't go.

The car scared him. Another bad sign. Crocker loved old cars -- loved his old car, a red 1971 Buick Riviera. He named her 'Berta, after a Clapton tune. But the summer of 2002 wasn't a good one for the old ride. It kept breaking down in the Texas heat, and so did its owner. Crocker's frustration bubbled every day, with every single one of 'Berta's wheezes, and it usually leapt into full-out tantrums right there in the driver's seat when the engine stuck. Crocker didn't want anyone seeing him losing his temper, and he didn't think the car would ever run smooth again. So he didn't feel much like driving anymore.

The future scared him. That was Crocker's deep secret. So what if he was already an Olympic relay gold medallist? So what if he was one of the world's best swimmers? So what if he was a hero in his home state in Maine, with a good chance to win individual gold two years later in Athens? Crocker couldn't break 52 seconds in the 100 butterfly. He fought with his girlfriend every night. He was sure his parents' marriage was doomed. His own self-esteem evaporated right there in front of all the Texas teammates whom he thought might not want him around. He hoped to transfer, to quit swimming, to just leave it all.

Being Ian Crocker scared him. "You might not call every day a bad day," he says, "but you never called any day a good day. It had probably been four, five or six years since I'd been happy."

And at those moments, late at night when sleep seemed to taunt him, late at night when dark thoughts seemed to chase him, those were the moments when he scrambled for the phone and called home. Those were the moments when the woman on the other end of the line clutched the receiver and thought, "This is not the son I know."

The soft-spoken 21-year-old swimmer favored to win Olympic gold this month in the 100 butterfly has beaten Michael Phelps -- twice. He has broken a world record -- twice. He might very well become the first human being to butterfly 100 meters in less than 50 seconds. If it wasn't for Phelps, Crocker might be the swimmer on the cover of all the magazines -- the swimmer in all the commercials. And still it might be tough for most casual fans to recognize him. Two years ago, he couldn't even recognize himself.

Ian Crocker doesn't exude devil-may-care, like Michael Phelps. He doesn't give off any nice-to-meet you vibe, like Aaron Peirsol. He doesn't scream look-at me like Gary Hall Jr. He doesn't do Joe Cool, like Lenny Krayzelberg. He's got a shy gaze and a tentative way. He takes everything personally. He is the last to believe in his greatness.

Crocker is not really cut out to be an Olympic hero. Glory always rubbed him the wrong way. Most of his childhood trophies wound up shrouded in basement dust back home in Portland, Maine. This is a guy who secretly told his mom that international competition happened too quickly -- that he didn't want to be so good so soon. His parents, Rick and Gail, had to convince him to go to the Pan-Pacific Games in '99. Finally they went with him, as a concession.

Deciding to go to Texas was no easier. How many teenagers from Maine count the days to flock to the weather and women of the South? Not Ian. He never even went to summer camp. Some coaches warned Longhorn coach Eddie Reese that weaning Crocker away from home would cause all sorts of problems. They were right: recruiting bothered Ian so much that his parents had him tested for all sorts of illness. No detectable problem surfaced, other than his ADD. Not then, anyway.

The 2000 Games? Another shock. Crocker went from an out-of-the-way state with no Olympic swimmer and no Olympic-sized swimming pool to gold-medallist in the 4x100 meter medley relay. He got so many requests for interviews and appearances when he returned to Maine that he asked his mom to only tell him what he had to do that day. Getting keys to the city was an honor, sure, but not all that life-altering. That swimming icon stuff was for Phelps and Hall and Krayzelberg, not for the Christian teen with a habit of asking his parents how he could best help the world become a better place.

So Crocker's post-Olympics mood dip didn't shock Longhorn coach Eddie Reese. "We noticed some change," Reese says. "He was less happy than normal. It's going from an immense high to a good place, but it's all relative. It's real high to real good, but it's still worse."

For Ian, it was a lot worse. He was homesick, sick of worrying about rent money. He was sick of training, sick of staring at the bottom of a pool and then staring at a number on a digital timer that wouldn't budge. He was sick of his crowd, sick of any crowd. He was sick of the fights with his girlfriend, sick of pleading. He was sick of all he used to look forward to doing. But it did not occur to him, as he faded away from everyone and everything that summer of '02, that he was actually sick.

"When I met him, he had zero self-esteem," says Texas swimmer and Sydney relay gold-medallist Erin Phenix, who got to know Crocker over those summer months. "He had no confidence in his swimming, his school, his friendships. His girlfriend was really destructive. He was surrounded by a bunch of people who made him feel like he wasn't a good person. He was really struggling with whether he wanted to keep swimming. He considered transferring. He thought he'd already reached his prime. And there was a year and a half when he didn't better his time. Michael Phelps came along and that didn't help."

Everything stressed Ian out all the time. Even the smallest things.

"If there was really bad traffic in the beginning of the day, he felt nothing good would happen to him the rest of that day," Phenix says. "He would get really angry, and you couldn't talk to him. I said, 'You need to talk to someone; at least to get your feelings out.' But he thought that there was no way things would be OK. I knew he needed help, and it wasn't the kind of help I could give him."

That help came, at first, from Ian's mother. Gail, a registered nurse from Portland, visited that summer. What she saw stunned her. "It was pretty scary," Gail says. "He had kind of an Eeyore to his voice. Kind of slo-mo. Everything was dark. Questioning everything. It was always in his style to stand back and watch, but it wasn't that anymore. It was more a disengaging. Just a lack of joy in anything."

Gail asked her son to look up a diagnostic test on the National Mental Health Association Web site (www.nmha.org). She asked a list of questions, and Ian answered them. Gail clicked a mouse once, and together they stared at the monitor expectantly. The results flashed on the screen: Ian had symptoms of depression.

Relief. "It was a welcome thought," Crocker says. "It was a thought of hope to think I didn't have to feel that way. I thought everyone felt that way."

Ian made an appointment with a psychiatrist, who diagnosed him as clinically depressed. The doctor prescribed Zoloft. The pills made Ian a bit dazed and sometimes nauseated, but something else felt different too: waking up. For weeks, months -- was it years? - Crocker needed a day's worth of will to put one bare foot on the floor. Now the walk to the shower seemed a little shorter. Training almost called to him. "I looked forward to different challenges," Crocker says, "rather than seeing them as hurdles."

But it was more than that. Crocker dropped downer music like Pink Floyd in favor of Dylan, Allman Brothers, and Lyle Lovett. He felt brave enough to bring his guitar to local clubs and jam with house bands. He noticed beer started getting boring, even annoying, so he stopped drinking almost completely. Crocker slid away from his old crew and moved in with an engineering student who didn't care if Ian was an Olympian or a librarian. He picked up fishing, hardly believing there was a body of water and a sport that helped him forget that other body of water, and that other sport. And by the time that summer was over, Ian and Erin were going out.

A year passed. Crocker saw the doctor every week. He felt better, trained better, even looked better. The problems between his parents cleared up. He jacked his max bench press 15 kg. He finally broke 52 seconds in the 100 fly. At world championships last summer, he became the only man ever to clear 51. Yes, he beat Michael Phelps. Then, with the Olympics less than a year away, Crocker made a rare rash decision: he quit the meds. Crocker didn't tell Erin, or Mom, or Reese, or his doctor.

"I found myself feeling really well," he explains.

Getting off anti-depressants cold turkey can cause all sorts of problems, from diarrhea to mania. Crocker's doctor was shocked to find his patient showed no ill-effects. He was lucky.

"It was a major mistake," Gail says. "It should have been monitored."

Crocker's energy kept up, though. He got into endurance work -- something he once loathed -- and found his homestretch laps going faster. He finished his Longhorn career as NCAA swimmer of the year and a 22-time collegiate champion. He even made honor roll for the first time as a senior. Last month, at U.S. trials, he broke his own world record, swimming the 100 fly in 50.76.

Now Ian -- shy, humble Ian -- stands in the way of Phelps' quest for seven gold medals and Olympic history. Now Ian -- sensitive, gentle Ian -- stares down at Phelps' bed from a poster the 19-year-old phenom has plastered on his wall for motivation. And, well, if you don't mind him saying so, Ian thinks he can beat Michael again in Athens.

"I'm feeling great," he says. "I want to get a lot faster. And in order to get a gold, I'll need to swim faster. My 100 fly has been taking leaps and bounds. I think it's possible to break 50. And I'd like to come close if not do it this summer."

Crocker's biggest challenge may come after the Olympics, when his life shifts again. Will he stay in Texas? Will he train for Beijing? Will he feel another post-Olympics lull? Will he slip back into depression?

"He's gone through it," Gail says. "He's learned the lesson. He knows who he is and he is more than swimming."

Ian will have his girlfriend. He will have fishing. He will have Dylan. And he will have 'Berta, now with a shiny new coat of gunmetal gray. Maybe Phelps will hit the talk show circuit and Hall will come out with a new line of beachwear. Maybe Peirsol will get a bit part on a sitcom and Krayzelberg will get a job at NBC. Ian? He'll be happy to hop in the Riviera, slide back into his seat, start up the engine, crank down the window, and just drive.

Eric Adelson is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.