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Phelps Faces the Strain Of Making Waves

By Sally Jenkins
Wednesday, August 13, 2008

BEIJING

After a while this gold medal thing can wear on a guy, even one with Michael Phelps's seemingly non-biodegradable constitution. It suddenly all seemed tiring, the cycle of eat-sleep-swim, the ice baths, the thousands of meters of warmups and warm-downs, the constant carbo-loading. Phelps stood in the pool after winning his fourth gold medal of the Summer Games, ripped off his water-filled goggles and chucked them over his shoulder as if he was sick of wearing them. He looked at the clock, unsmiling, and grabbed at his side under the water, as if the race had given him a stitch, instead of the all-time mark for Olympic bullion.

It was Phelps's fifth straight day of competition at the Water Cube, and suddenly the strain showed. It was apparent that this pursuit of eight golds is not as automatic as we, watching with our feet propped up, might think. With one goggle mishap, Phelps could have seen the end of his Olympic record quest through a pair of bloodshot eyes.

As soon as he dived in the water at the start of the 200-meter butterfly, his goggles tore away from his face and water poured into them. "They filled right up," he said.

By the 150-meter mark he couldn't see the wall. Phelps had won three previous gold medals by eclipsing world records in each, and he had every expectation of doing so again in the 200 fly. He has owned the fly record since 2001, when he was a slack-jawed, mouth-breathing teenager who had to ask his coach, Bob Bowman, "Who is this Mark Spitz guy, and why does everybody keep asking me about him?"

But Phelps wasn't thinking about a world record as the chlorine stung his eyes. "I was just hoping I was winning and hoping I could get my hand to the wall first," he said.

For the first time in the Beijing Games, he swam as if it was effortful. Half-blind as his goggles sloshed with water, he searched for the black T on the bottom of the pool, and tried to guage his distance to the wall by counting his strokes. His time of 1 minute 52.03 seconds barely clipped Laszlo Cseh of Hungary (1:52.70) at the touch. It was his closest individual finish so far, and a second slower than he wanted, and he was clearly dismayed. "It's fine," he said unenthusiastically.

This is the point Phelps has reached at these Olympics: He is now discerning between great gold medals, and the merely mundane ones.

It was only when Phelps's irritation at the goggle malfunction had worn off, and he stood on the medal podium with yet another ornament slung around his neck, that the realization hit him: He had just broken the all-time career total for Olympic gold medals with 10, surpassing the nine held by the likes of Spitz and Carl Lewis.

"I was in the awards ceremony for the 200 fly when I started thinking about it and that's when I started tearing up," he said. "To be at the top with so many great athletes who have walked in the Olympic Games, it's a pretty amazing feeling."

Phelps's relentless rhythm of excellence is in danger of robbing him, and us, of proper appreciation for what he might accomplish here. The goggle mishap was evidence of just how fragile his quest really is, all of his painstaking preparation and magnificent effort could have been undone with one fluke.

But it was also evidence of what a towering mental giant he is. It was 10:23 in the morning when got out of the pool with a sour face after swimming the fly. At 11:20 he hopped back in it for the 4x200 freestyle relay -- and won his fifth gold medal of the Games, this time with the sort of lofty world record performance he wanted. Phelps swam the leadoff leg in a spectacular collective assault on the world mark with Ryan Lochte, Ricky Berens and Peter Vanderkaay, who combined to shatter it by 4.68 seconds. That's no typo. Phelps, Lochte, Berens and Vanderkaay swam nearly five seconds faster than any team ever, cutting so fast through the water that the other teams seemed to be swimming in another pool.

Phelps won his first gold five days ago with a world record in the 400 individual medley that is widely regarded as one of the great swims of all time, a collectible. From then on, something spectacular has been expected of him every day -- his teammates have predicted that he is on his way to an epic meet. "He's gonna be on fire now," Aaron Peirsol said. "He'll be hard to stop."

As record after record has fallen, evidence has mounted that he could be on his way to the greatest Olympics ever -- a tsunami of records that will wash over and eradicate all other accomplishments. "And it ain't over yet," said Eddie Reese, the U.S. men's swimming coach.

Phelps is now more than halfway to the eight, and his greatest individual challenge has been a pair of busted goggles. We're beginning to take his performances for granted, to expect the same from him that he expects from himself. The trick, as Phelps turns the corner in his chase for eight golds, is to properly admire his last few attempts. Let's not forget to sightsee along the way, to stop and stare at an athlete who is one of the great wonders of the world. Otherwise, we won't fully realize what we got to see.

"That's our fault," Reese said. "We've got to appreciate what happens when it happens. If we lived in the Taj Mahal for half a year, it'd be home.

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