August 17, 2008
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'd 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 - the Americans once again the first to the wall - Phelps calmly celebrated. In the stands, his mother and two sisters - both of whom were dressed 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 Mt. Rushmore of athletic icons. But make no mistake, he's different from the other legends who've made Maryland glow. Johnny Unitas, Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken Jr. were recognized from coast to coast. Babe Ruth was a small blip on global radar.
But millions of people in China know about Phelps. And millions more around the world do, too. There's never been a Baltimore athlete - or perhaps any Baltimorean - who transcended not just the city, but also the entire nation quite like this. Phelps' popularity is proportional to his athletic brilliance, which is to say it's nearly unmatched.
President Bush stopped by the Beijing pool last week. So did Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Everyone had to see this in person in order to be believe it to be true.
Phelps is being debated, celebrated and admired in every language. As he passed Spitz, Mexico's El Universal debated, "Crees que toco primero?" while France's L'Equipe announced, "Entre dans l'histoire" and Italy's La Gazzetta dello Sport blared, "Fenomeno nella leggenda." The gossip columnist for China Daily speculated on Phelps' love life. And a writer from The Sydney Morning Herald was urging him to hook up with Australia's top female swimmer "and produce golden children."
Phelps Phever encircled the globe with good reason. What he has done here over the past nine days will go down as one of the most incredible athletic achievements ever, regardless of sport, era or stage.
Seven world records and eight gold medals. In nine days, 17 races. And somehow he still had the energy to stand on the podium when it was over and flash that endearing, goofy smile.
It's too simple to think the feat came down to his blazing fast leg of 400 medley relay. Or, for that matter, to anything that has happened here in Beijing. The journey was long, encapsulating the growth of a champion and the maturity of a man.
All of it somehow squeezed into a Speedo suit. The 7-year-old who refused to put his head under water. The 15-year-old - the youngest American on the Olympic team in Sydney - who was just .4 of a second away from a medal. The 19-year-old who for nine days in the summer of 2004 was a Greek god. And now, a 23-year-old who has done what no one before him had ever accomplished, something that no one after him might ever match.
"I think it really shows that no matter what you set your imagination to, anything can happen," Phelps said. "If you dream as big as you can dream, anything is possible."
See, Phelps isn't simply a better swimmer than anyone else, he's better dreamer, too, setting his sights on the impossible.
It wasn't enough to be the next Tom Malchow. The next Matt Biondi. Or the next Mark Spitz.
Almost since the Athens Games, we've heard some variation of his immodest goal. "I want to become the first Michael Phelps, not the second Mark Spitz," he has said. "I want to do something that no one else has ever done before."
Rest assured, the images will endure.
There he was, miles ahead of anyone else in his opening race, the 400 individual medley. We saw his emotions uncorked as he celebrated the 400 freestyle relay, stirring up a storm of excitement felt thousands of miles away. And when he was swimming the third leg in final race, entering the pool in third place and emerging from it in first.
Please don't take offense, Carl Lewis. And this is no knock on Jesse Owens' legend. But Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian of them all. He's the greatest athlete alive today. Others might match his athleticism. You might find another set of generous genes and a similar nurturing upbringing. Someone might match his relentless competitive drive and intense ability to focus on the task at hand.
But the whole package? There's only one, and millions around the globe would attest to that fact today. 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.
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