Phelps Is Now Without Peer

Baltimore's Michael Phelps, right, earns his fifth gold medal of these Games in 4x200 freestyle relay.
Baltimore's Michael Phelps, right, earns his fifth gold medal of these Games in 4x200 freestyle relay. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 13, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 13 -- Perhaps the measure of where Michael Phelps now stands -- not only in the history of the Olympics, but in the history of athletics -- is that he can pull off an unprecedented feat and have disgust wash over his face. Following his performance Wednesday morning -- two more races, two more gold medals, two more world records, cue the yawns -- Phelps couldn't escape the idea that even a swim others couldn't imagine can be flawed.

"I couldn't see anything for the last 100" meters, he said. "My goggles pretty much filled up with water."

What, short of lead anklets, would ruin him? Phelps won his signature event, the 200-meter butterfly, and broke his own world mark for his fourth gold medal. There was, though, no fist pump, no slap of the water, no sign of triumph in the least -- just a disgusted and swift removal of his cap and those waterlogged goggles. Less than an hour later, he and three teammates -- his buddy Ryan Lochte, the Olympic rookie Ricky Berens and the sturdy anchor Peter Vanderkaay -- seized another gold, this one in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay, a race devoid of malfunctions, a no-doubt-about-it swim that lopped 4.68 seconds off the old world record.

Thus, the plan -- one Phelps, the 23-year-old from Baltimore County, can consider piecemeal but not in its entirety -- is falling into place, regardless of the level of the competition or the resilience of his equipment. He has five races and five gold medals in these Olympics, with three events to go. Win them all, and he will surpass Mark Spitz for the most golds in a single Games.

More than that quest -- one Phelps doesn't speak of unless spoken to -- what is crystallizing here is Phelps's ability to perform under any condition, favorable or otherwise. "It kept getting worse and worse through the race," he said. He was, thus, simultaneously hampered and historic. His coach, Bob Bowman, has spent countless hours breaking down why his charge excels when others crumble, and is able to tick off the characteristics.

"Another thing that separates Michael from most people," Bowman said, "is that when they don't feel good, they don't swim well. Michael kind of performs independently of his feelings."

Indeed, Phelps's mind is so compartmentalized, Bowman believed there was no way he could comprehend the magnitude of what he's accomplishing. But with the two victories Wednesday, Phelps now has 11 gold medals -- six in Athens four years ago as a teenager, and now five here. He could meet with disaster Wednesday evening -- a rolled ankle, say, or a stomach-roiling meal -- and be in the discussion as one of the greatest Olympians ever. No one else -- not Spitz, not track great Carl Lewis, not Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina, not Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi -- has more than nine golds. Standing on the medal podium for the 200 butterfly, his 10th gold secured, it hit him.

"When I started thinking about it, being at the top with so many great athletes who have walked in these Olympics Games, that's when I started tearing up," Phelps said. "It's a pretty amazing feeling."

For Phelps -- who has made a habit of combining art with power, raw athleticism with a clock-maker's precision -- there is no more sublime event than the 200 fly. He first grabbed the world record in 2001, when he was -- get this -- 15. He has since lowered the mark six times, and when he dove into the pool Wednesday, he owned nine of the 10 fastest times ever logged in the event. His last loss? It came long before the world knew Phelps's name. That would be 2002, in Yokohama, Japan, when Tom Malchow -- whose record Phelps originally stole as a teenager -- beat him in the Pan Pacific Championships. Since then: 24 for 24 in finals.

Thus, his standards are almost impossible to match. He led at the halfway point Wednesday, then at the 150-meter mark. But over the final 30 meters, Hungary's Laszlo Cseh, the silver medalist to Phelps in the 400-meter individual medley earlier in these Games, rose from Lane 6. Phelps, who was to have no rival, had one for a few strokes before he surged once more, touching in 1 minute 52.03 seconds -- six hundredths better than his previous record, 67 hundredths better than Cseh, but not in the sub-1:51 range Phelps sought.

"It's fine," he said. "For the circumstances, I guess it's not too bad."

The relay team had a decidedly different feel, both before and after. Phelps's opening leg left the Americans more than 2 1/2 seconds in front. Lochte, the mellow Floridian, extended that. Berens, who replaced the veteran Klete Keller, opened it up to more than four seconds. Vanderkaay, the bronze medalist in the 200 free, needed only not to drown for the United States to win another gold, to set another record. He succeeded, touching in 6:58.56, more than five seconds ahead of the silver medalists, Russia.

"We'd love to be a part of history, helping Michael out," Berens said. "But it's for the country. It's for pride."

One of the only swimmers who is attempting a Phelps-like program here is Katie Hoff of Towson, Md. On Wednesday, she figured to add to a silver (400 freestyle) and bronze (400 individual medley). In the 200 freestyle, she swam under her old best mark, but finished fourth. She hit the water again in the 200 IM 75 minutes later, and again finished fourth -- this one to a world record of Australia's Stephanie Rice (2:08.45), a race in which Californian Natalie Coughlin won bronze.

Even Hoff's performances could bring the spotlight back to Phelps, who appears to have no limits. "There is -- somewhere," Bowman protested. They just haven't been discovered yet. Eddie Reese, the U.S. men's coach, said afterward he ran into the British freestyler Simon Burnett.

"I figured out Michael Phelps," Burnett told Reese. "He's not from another planet. He's from the future."

Those, then, are the discussions that remain over the final four days of the swim meet. History, as it pertains to Phelps, is being surpassed. What's left is to consider what could possibly slay him -- and what it would mean if nothing does.

After the relay, the goggles were an afterthought. Finally, there came a broad smile. Phelps had met his own standards -- perhaps the highest compliment available for an athlete who, increasingly, can't be measured by others.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company