Ian Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband; Photo - Vincent Laforet/The New York Times

Think the competition in the Olympics isn’t tough? Just ask Michael Phelps. Phelps swam the 200-meter freestyle yesterday, setting a new personal and American record and still finished third to winner Ian Thorpe (who set a new Olympic record with his 1:44.71 time) and runner up Pieter van den Hoogenband. Amazingly, Phelps third place finish would have been good enough to win the Gold in this event in any previous Olympics. Van den Hoogenband was the defending champion in this event and yesterday’s results could possibly set up the rubber match in Beijing in 2008.

Thorpe, known in his homeland of Australia as “The Thorpedo” cemented his staus as the man to beat in the 200-meter freestyle. "I gave my best, but Thorpe was better," van den Hoogenband said. "He is the man in this distance." Thorpe added, "This was the kind of race that had people talking on three different continents because of me, Michael and Pieter. It was clear that you had to swim the perfect race to win against that kind of field."

After the race Phelps held his head high despite having his quest for seven gold medals shattered. "How can I be disappointed?" Phelps said. "I swam in a field with the two fastest 200 freestylers of all time and I was right there with them. I'm extremely happy with that. It was fun. I had fun doing it."

Overall, it was a good day for American swimmers. Aaron Peirsol won his first gold in the 100-meter backstroke in a tightly contested final that saw just three-hundredths of a second separating second and fourth place. Natalie Coughlin won a gold medal for her victory in the women’s 100-meter backstroke.

Peirsol was obviously able to shake off the controversy he stirred up on Monday when he accused Kosuke Kitajima of Japan of using an illegal dolphin kick at the start of the 100-meter breaststroke that helped propel Kitajima to the gold medal (many thanks to loyal Gothamist reader Barry for sending that along).

So far swimming has been Gothamist’s favorite event of the '04 Olympics, but that’s probably just because we like saying van den Hoogenband over and over again.