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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Phelps’s Epic Journey Ends in Perfection

It was so surreal to be Michael Phelps here, to listen to people debate whether he is the greatest athlete in Olympic history after he passed a group that included the runners Carl Lewis and Paavo Nurmi to become the one with the most gold medals.

Times journalists and special contributors explore the Olympics in Beijing and on the Web from every angle — the politics, the culture and the competition.

Phelps is a self-described klutz, a real fish out of water on land, and he has a surgical scar on his right wrist to prove it. In October he took a nasty stumble that imperiled his pursuit of Mark Spitz’s single Games record of seven gold medals. Phelps, 23, slipped on a patch of ice and fell while climbing into a friend’s car in Michigan and broke his right wrist.

It made for a tough start to the training cycle that carried him through these Beijing Games, but the climax was perfect. On Sunday morning, Phelps swam the butterfly leg on the United States 4x100-meter medley relay that held off Australia in a world record-setting victory, giving Phelps his eighth gold medal of these Games and his 14th over all.

“I wanted to do something nobody ever did,” Phelps said. “This goes hand in hand with my goal of changing swimming.”

Spitz’s record lasted 36 years, and it figures to be even longer before the world sees Phelps’s successor. In 1972, Spitz swam two strokes, the freestyle and the butterfly, and none of his swims covered more than 200 meters. Phelps swam all four strokes, at distances ranging from 100 to 400 meters, and faced three rounds in each of his five individual events, one more round than Spitz had.

“I think it’s probably one of the greatest things sport in general has ever seen,” said Brendan Hansen, who swam the breaststroke leg in the winning relay Sunday. “The shame of it is other athletes aren’t going to realize how hard it is. The world is fast in swimming right now. The world was not fast when Mark Spitz did his seven.”

How fabulous was Phelps’s feat? At Sunday’s start, the Person’s Republic of Michael would have ranked fourth in gold medals and been ahead of all but 14 countries in the medal count.

Phelps’s longtime coach, Bob Bowman, has been preparing him for this since Phelps made his first Olympic team, in the 200 butterfly, as a 15-year-old in 2000. In the beginning it seemed foolhardy, sending Phelps out to swim 17 races over nine days.

As time went on, one could see Bowman’s vision crystallizing. At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Phelps won six gold medals and two bronzes. Swimming the same program at the 2007 world championships, he won seven golds, missing a shot at an eighth when a relay he would have raced was disqualified in a preliminary heat.

Every time Phelps dived into the water for a final here, the ripples extended into every corner of the Water Cube. On Saturday, the Andrew Lauterstein of Australia won the bronze medal in the 100 butterfly. Standing on the medals podium alongside Phelps, Lauterstein said, he was thrilled to have had a cameo role in this recording of history. “I was saying to myself, ‘This is pretty special,’ ” he said. “ ‘Look around and try to remember this moment.’ ”

Lauterstein’s countrywoman, Liesl Jones, who won two golds and a silver here, said: “I just feel very privileged that I got to watch Michael Phelps win eight gold medals. That’s been the highlight of my Olympics.”

These Games produced many unforgettable swims. With Phelps contributing to seven, 25 world records fell, 10 more than were broken at the 2007 world championships in Melbourne, Australia. The pool was conducive to fast times. It was three meters, or 10 feet, deep, with two empty lanes on either side serving as buffers to keep waves from ricocheting. The new corset-like suits, which shoehorn the swimmers’ bodies into more streamlined positions, also had a role in the record assault.

Not to be overlooked is the psychological component. When one swimmer achieves what was once unthinkable, be it Phelps breaking 1 minute 43 seconds in the 200-meter freestyle or 4:04 in the 400-meter individual medley, it makes every barrier suddenly look vulnerable.

“When you come out and swim fast times, people realize that it can be done,” Grant Hackett, a three-time medalist in the 1,500-meter freestyle, said. “You set that bar a bit high and people are going to come with you.”

As the meet went on, the otherworldliness of Phelps’s performance found expression in other swimmers’ tales. In the men’s 50 freestyle final on Saturday, the goggles of Eamon Sullivan, the Australian world-record holder, filled with water on his dive and he never recovered, finishing sixth.


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