August 10, 2008
The race for history started this way: the lean swimmer stretching on the block and channeling adrenaline, his icy stare directed solely at the pool. His sights were not set on eight gold medals. For today, for this race, one would be enough.
And when that race was over, even President Bush was left speechless, silently nodding his approval from the stands. Later, Michael Phelps himself had to admit, "I'm almost shocked that I went that fast."
For Phelps, the tone is now set. Any holdouts and nonbelievers have choked on their skepticism. Phelps' blistering pace in the 400-meter individual medley has brought the Olympic water at the Water Cube to a quick boil.
His first gold medal of these Games marked the eighth time Phelps has set the record in this race. When he did it last month at the U.S. Olympic trials, we couldn't appreciate the gap that existed: What Phelps did in Omaha, Neb., wasn't a reliable gauge on which to base Beijing expectations. Phelps hadn't even tapered before that meet, so the plan had always been clear: peak in Beijing.
Last week, Phelps had a nest of hair and a Fu Manchu mustache framing his mouth. He looked as if he played bass in a 1970s rock band. When he emerged from the pool today - one gold down, seven to go? - his face was smooth, his hair shorn close to his head, his demeanor excited but still focused.
By besting his previous world record by 1.41 seconds, finishing in 4 minutes, 3.84 seconds, he showed that no matter how dominant we thought Phelps was, in truth, we probably haven't a clue how good he could be. It certainly whets the appetite for what could ensue in the next few days.
While everyone in China obsesses over the number eight - it's auspicious, it's lucky, it's downright Phelpsian - the Phelps family will always have a special place in their hearts for No.1. It goes without saying that grabbing the first is imperative, but it's also the most emotional.
"I'll just never forget it," Debbie Phelps says, her words taking her to another place and another time.
Winning his first gold in Beijing looked like protocol, a business-like mean to an ends. Four years ago, there was a childlike glee, though, attached to that first race.
Not long after besting teammate Erik Vendt in the 400 IM in Athens, Phelps grabbed his cell phone. "I want to see you guys," he told his oldest sister, Hilary. "Let's meet."
Near the warm-up pool, there was a chain-link fence separating fans from swimmers. With a sandwich in one hand and a medal around his neck, Phelps eagerly greeted his family. He held the medal out for them.
"Look what I did," he said.
That's all it took for Debbie and her two daughters to burst into tears, each touching gold through the fence. There were lives cast into that one medal, years of working and dreaming and siblings bickering on the pool deck and a mom driving the kids back and forth to swim practice.
While the world was wondering whether Phelps could win eight, for the moment, one was all that mattered.
Behind the Phelps women was his father, Fred, and some cousins. And behind them were gawking fans, dozens of people pushing their way as close as possible, trying to eavesdrop on history. But it was as private a moment any family can share. Debbie estimates it might have been the only moment, in fact, during the 2004 Games that hundreds of cameras weren't pointed at her son.
"No one was there to capture it," she says. "It exists here" - she touches her chest - "and in my memories" - her eyes begin to well - "and obviously in my tears."
Still today, that first Athens win is special. But you can bet the first in Beijing will stand the test of time, too. Mother and sisters were in the stands again. Phelps swiveled his head looking for them after the race but didn't spot them until the medal ceremony. Smiling and pointing and sharing in something that was years in the making. Once again, the emotions were too much.
"I said to [coach Bob Bowman], I wanted to sing on the medal podium, but I just couldn't stop crying," Phelps said.
This first accomplishment will prove to be among the biggest and most impressive of these Games. In a sport in which a fingertip or eyelash separates gold and silver, Phelps was an ocean ahead of everyone, separated from the field by nearly 2 1/2 seconds.
And how much has he improved since Athens? Phelps has shaved an incredible 4.42 seconds off his 2004 gold-medal time.
The swimmers in the Beijing pool are like tea leaves in water. In his first race of these Games, Phelps flushed everyone else clean out of the pool, and it certainly seemed to hint that something special awaits.
Four years ago, Phelps said, "Look what I did." Today, you can't help but wonder. Grab a friend. Tell a neighbor. Hey world, "Look at what Michael's about to do."
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