By Kevin Van Valkenburg
1:50 AM EDT, August 17, 2008
The epic story of Michael Phelps' transcendent Olympics has produced many iconic moments, a diverse selection of did-I-really-just-see-that? mental snapshots.
These Olympics have always been about making history for Phelps, a 23-year-old with a long torso, longer arms and the competitive instincts of a hungry shark.
In eight races -- including this morning's 400 medley relay, which earned him his eighth gold medal, breaking the record for a single Olympics Games held for 36 years by Mark Spitz -- he has provided us with the kind of memories that do not fade.
He has left fellow swimmers to fight through his wake, and he has nipped them at the wall by margins so thin, the naked eye could not be trusted to record them. He has bear-hugged his teammates and he has roared with appreciation -- arms extended, muscles rippling -- at their amazing swims.
Most of all, he has reminded us that it's OK to dream up ridiculous feats as long as you truly believe you can make them reality.
"With so many people saying it couldn't be done, all it took was a little imagination," said Phelps, a product of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. "It's been such an unbelievable roller coaster. It's been such an unbelievable ride. All I want to do is go see my mom."
Today's medley relay was no coronation. The U.S. all-star lineup of Aaron Piersol, Brendan Hansen, Phelps and Jason Lezak needed one final world record -- Phelps' seventh of these games -- to secure their teammate's place in history.
The Americans were in third when Phelps dove into the pool, but he gave them a lead they would not surrender.
Lezak held off Australia's Eamon Sullivan over the final 50 meters, touching in 3 minutes, 29.34 seconds. Phelps' relay split was 50.15, the fastest of any of the butterfly legs, and 0.25 faster than the world record.
After the relay victory, Phelps screamed, "I couldn't have done it without you guys," as he hugged his teammates.
Phelps was somewhat reserved in his celebration, pumping his fist once and then embracing his teammates. He looked elated but exhausted, happy it had finally become real.
Australia finished second (3:30.04) and Japan third (3:31.18).
"An extraordinary chapter in Olympic history has been written here in Beijing by one of the greatest athletes of all time. We could not be more proud of Michael," said U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth.
"The fact that his eighth medal was won in a team relay signifies Michael's commitment not only to his own quest, but to the importance of teamwork."
It was, in so many respects, it's fitting that Lezak's hand was the one on the wall securing the gold and wrapping up Phelps' quest with a team victory.
Although Phelps' accomplishments managed to dwarf all other stories this week -- Natalie Coughlin probably won the quietest six medals in the history of the Games -- Lezak's remarkable anchor leg of the 400-meter freestyle relay, and the celebration it ignited, will likely be the memory that trumps all others.
"We wanted to do this for all of us, not just Michael," Piersol said. "But as far as whether we'll ever see another like Mike? Mark came around 30-some years ago, but ... the term Spitzian feat might be outdated now.
"It might be Phelpsian feat. I think I just coined that phrase."
The relays have always been, arguably, Phelps' favorite events. For those few moments, he is not viewed as the greatest swimmer in all the world. He is just an American, working together with three other men, the sturdy leg of a chair or wheel of a car.
"I think he likes the aspect of having it not be about him, because so much of it is," said Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman.
"I think he loves getting with those guys because he loves team sports like basketball and football, and it's the one time he really gets to feel a part of something."
A measure of luck
He could not have won eight golds without some measure of luck.
His decision to take one final stroke in the 100-meter butterfly yesterday -- especially when Serbia's Milorad Cavic chose to glide into the wall 0.01 seconds slower -- was both clutch and fortuitous. Even he thought it was, in the moment, the wrong choice.
"I really thought that cost me the race, but it happened to be the direct opposite," Phelps said.
Luck, though, played such a small role when compared with preparation. Phelps' week was mapped out virtually down to the minute by Bowman, the man who is equal parts orchestra conductor and mad scientist when it comes to swimming.
Even when China chose not to wait for Phelps -- a bus pulled away midweek as he and his coach were running to catch it -- solutions were devised.
"The buses do this little turn-around, and I told him, go stand out in the middle of the road," Bowman said. "He did, and they stopped."
It's an appropriate metaphor for the games: Phelps standing in front of us all, forcing us to stop, just for moment, and join him for the ride. Even President Bush grabbed a seat early in the week, waving a small American flag and shooting Phelps the thumbs-up after each world record fell.
"To be honest, I think it's probably one of the greatest things in the history of sport," Hansen said. "The world is fast at swimming now. It was not fast when Mark Spitz did the seven.
"It's like making the final putt to win the U.S. Open, he won the Tour de France, he knocked out the best fighter in the world in the 16th round with an uppercut. He did absolutely everything in the sport you are supposed to do and he did it with a smile on his face."
Tears and hugs
Phelps smiled with each trip to the medal stand, having done it so often, he began offering advice to the Americans who joined him on the podium. His eyes filled with tears this morning as so many emotions swirled inside his head. He couldn't wait to hug his mom, Debbie, and his sisters Whitney and Hilary
"My mom and I were joking the last few days about an English teacher I had who said I'd never be successful," Phelps said.
Thousands of miles and oceans away, his country was watching. Word trickled back to him that his races were leading the news, that thousands had watched his race inside M&T Bank Stadium after the Ravens' exhibition loss to the Minnesota Vikings. That may have been the greatest reward of all.
"My big goal is to change the sport of swimming," Phelps said. "For the kids coming up in the sport and also for of the sport in America. So my goal is starting to happen, but there is still a long way to go with that. I'm sure Bob and I can think of something in the next four years."
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