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The greatest

August 24, 2008

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Eighth gold: 400 medley relay -- Aug. 17

A frenzy of golden energy, Michael Phelps exited the pool, shaking water off his lithe and lean body. Onto the pool deck splashed the droplets -- those Baltimore roots, the memories from Greece and the immaculate show he had just put on in China.

It all gathered together beautifully and perfectly in a puddle. The swimmer made of gold had made history. In winning his eighth gold medal of these Olympics, Phelps broke Mark Spitz's 36-year-old record, a mark once thought untouchable.

"This is all a dream come true," an emotional Phelps said.

When the 400-meter medley relay was finished, Phelps calmly celebrated. In the stands, his mother and two sisters -- both of whom were dressed in gold -- were soaked in tears, exchanging hugs with anyone and everyone. The party wasn't one of restraint; it was one of shock. How was all of this possible?

"Every day it seems like I'm in sort of a dream world," Phelps had said during his quest. "Sometimes you sort of have to pinch yourself to see if it's really real. "I'm just happy I'm in the real world."

The real world, the one of his own design. The one where water is no obstacle and no record is unbreakable. The one where a young boy from Rodgers Forge could take the entire world along on an incredible journey.

His face is now etched permanently on Baltimore's Mount Rushmore of iconic athletes. But make no mistake, he's different from the other legends who have made Maryland glow. John Unitas, Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken Jr. were recognized from coast to coast. Babe Ruth was a small blip on the global radar.

But millions of people in China know about Phelps. And millions more around the world do, too. It's not just that what we've all witnessed had never happened before.

It's that we cannot reasonably expect to see anything quite like it ever again.

- Rick Maese


400 medley relay

Silver: Australia Bronze: Japan

Time: 3:29.34 (Aaron Peirsol, backstroke; Brendan Hansen, breaststroke; Phelps, butterfly; Jason Lezak, freestyle), WR

Previous world record: 3:30.68

Key to the victory: Lezak held off Australia's Eamon Sullivan over the final 50 meters.

Highlight: This broke Mark Spitz's record for most gold medals in a single Olympics. Phelps' relay split was 50.15, the fastest of any of the butterfly legs, and 0.25 faster than the world record.

Quote: "With so many people saying it couldn't be done, all it took was a little imagination. It's been such an unbelievable roller coaster." -- Phelps