Phelps Earns Eighth Gold
Sunday, August 17, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 17 -- Michael Phelps had one swim left in him, 100 more meters to cap a meet in which he swam 3,300 of them, physical and mental exhaustion peeking from around the corner. Yet when he needed greatness once more, he found it. When he could set a new standard -- with the help of three teammates, without whom his legacy here would be incomplete -- he did it, one more time.
In the final event of a nine-day period that will forever be marked in athletic history, Phelps swam a remarkable butterfly leg of the 4x100-meter medley relay Sunday morning, turning a deficit into an American advantage.
When Phelps dove in the pool as the third of four swimmers in an event that involves all four of swimming's disciplines, the U.S. team was in third. When he finished, the Americans led. And when freestyler Jason Lezak finished it off -- setting a new world record of 3 minutes, 29.34 seconds -- Phelps had his eighth gold medal of the Beijing Olympics, breaking the record set in 1972 by Californian Mark Spitz.
"I wanted to do something nobody ever did before," he said. "This goes hand-in-hand with my goal of changing swimming."
Phelps marked the occasion first with those teammates: backstroker Aaron Peirsol, who took the lead in the race; breaststroker Brendan Hansen, who was surpassed by both the Japanese and the Australians; and Lezak, the 32-year-old who staved off a charge from young Eamon Sullivan of Australia. Sullivan touched seven-tenths of a second late.
When Lezak hit first, Phelps and his teammates celebrated heartily on the pool deck. Phelps later cried on the medal stand, then sought out his mother Debbie in the stands for a hug and another good, long sob. He is a figure with no match here -- separating himself not only from Spitz, but perhaps from athletes in other sports and other eras as well.
"Everything was accomplished," Phelps said. "What else could I do?"
The answer: Nothing. Spitz did not travel to Beijing to see Phelps blow by him. In an interview with NBC on Saturday, though, he was gracious, calling Phelps's achievements "epic," then deeming him the greatest Olympian ever.
That will be the debate that follows Phelps moving forward. He has 14 gold medals in his career, more than anyone in Olympic history. The old mark? A measly nine. That, though, is not the only means by which to measure Phelps's newly secured stature.
Phelps won here by margins great (more than two seconds in both the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys) and infinitesimal (eight hundredths of a second in the 4x100 freestyle relay, one hundredth of a second in an already legendary 100 butterfly on Saturday). He set four individual world records, three more in relays. One of those marks came when, immediately upon diving into the pool for the 200-meter butterfly, his goggles filled with water, leaving him on a blind swim for gold.
So grab a chair, consider the accomplishments, roll out the other legends -- Carl Lewis and Jesse Owens of track, Larisa Latynina of gymnastics, Spitz himself -- and place Phelps somewhere among them, or beyond.
"I think in terms of just sheer dominance in his events," said his coach, Bob Bowman, "and the times he's putting up, and what he's done now over two Olympics -- really three, but the two where he's won medals -- I think it's hard to argue. Of course, I'm a swimming coach."