The Flying Dutchman only wishes the winner of the race was still around.
Ian Thorpe retired a few months ago, scuttling hopes of a true 200-meter freestyle rematch at the world championships in Melbourne.
"Of course, I'm really looking forward to it," van den Hoogenband said Thursday at Rod Laver Arena, where the swimming competition will be held in a temporary pool. "Unfortunately, Ian is not swimming anymore. But Michael is the world champion at the moment in the 200 free.
Thorpe, van den Hoogenband and Phelps finished 1-2-3 in that event at the last Olympics, the only time all three of the swimming greats faced each other.
Phelps, a world record holder in the butterfly and individual medleys, took up the 200 free because he longed for a chance to race Hoogie and the Thorpedo.
Thorpe won the gold in Athens, making up for his upset loss to van den Hoogenband at the 2000 Sydney Games. Phelps settled for bronze in the fastest 200 ever, ruining his hopes of challenging Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals.
After touching the wall first, Thorpe leaned over to van den Hoogenband and said, "One-all, I'll see you in Beijing for the decider." But that tantalizing prospect faded away when injuries and a lack of motivation prompted Thorpe to retire at age 24.
"It's a draw," van den Hoogenband said with a smile.
But Phelps is still around, looking to defend the 200 freestyle title he won at the last world championships in Montreal. The American star won with a time of 1 minute, 45.20 seconds, bettering his performance in Athens but still leaving him as only the third-fastest 200 freestyler in history.
The top two, or course, are Thorpe (the world record holder at 1:44.06) and van den Hoogenband.
"I think Michael is capable of swimming the 200 in under 1:45," van den Hoogenband said. "So far, only two people on the planet have done that, and I am one of them. But (Phelps) is the man to beat. He's in good shape. He could break the record in the 200 free."
On a slow day at the championships _ the only gold was awarded in synchronized swimming - the arrival of van den Hoogenband and dozens of other swimmers for training at the Rod Laver pool brought a sense of excitement just when things were starting to lag.
The swimming competition begins Sunday.
While Thorpe took time off after the Athens Olympics - and, as it turned out, never returned to the pool - van den Hoogenband didn't compete at the 2005 world championships because he was recovering from back surgery.
It was a tenuous operation that left the Dutchman wondering if his swimming career was over.
"I just had to trust the surgeon and trust the operation," he said. "When I woke up, I was OK. Then I knew it was up to me."
Van den Hoogenband knew he still loved the sport when he was forced to watch the 2005 championships on television. It pained him to be left on the sidelines, but it also motivated him to get back in the water.
He figured Thorpe would do the same, but it never happened. The Aussie's only appearance at these championships came during the opening ceremony, when he appeared on deck - in a dress suit, not a bodysuit _ to be honored for his remarkable career.
"He was always a very special opponent for me," van den Hoogenband said. "I'm disappointed that he's not here. He really motivated me to train and swim fast."
He remembered some of their conversations away from the pool.
"Ian always told me when we were racing each other and he won, 'It hurt so much to beat you,"' van den Hoogenband said. "I considered it a compliment."
Amazingly, the 29-year-old swimmer has never won a world title. He hardly considers it a blemish on his career, not with three Olympic gold medals in his trophy case.
In addition to his 200 victory at Sydney, van den Hoogenband is the reigning two-time Olympic champion in the 100 free.
"The world championships are very, very important," he said. "Don't get me wrong, but the Olympics are a little more special."
Of course, there's always someone looking to knock you off. South Africa's Roland Schoeman boldly predicted that he'll be the man to beat in the 100 once he smooths out his return lap in the 50-meter pool.
"What did he say?" van den Hoogenband asked. "Unbeatable? OK. It's good to hear that he's in good shape. I could tell a lot of different stories, but we'll have to see what happens in the water."
Van den Hoogenband is the world record holder in the 100, setting a mark of 47.84 in Sydney that still stands. He's the only swimmer to go under 48 seconds, doing it twice.
The Dutchman might have to do it again if he wants to win the 100 in Melbourne. He soundsready for the challenge in what likely will be his last world championships.
Van den Hoogenband, whose wife is expecting their first child this summer, will likely retire after the Beijing Olympics, though he left open a "very, very small chance" of hanging around through the 2009 worlds in Rome, reports AP.
"I'm here. I'm fit. I'm ready to swim fast," van den Hoogenband said. "Hopefully, I will show the rest of the world that I'm a fast swimmer again."