By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
Swimming coaches, too, knew how hard that last medal would be to secure. The 4x100-meter medley relay simultaneously engendered confidence and anxiety in the U.S. team. The event has been held at every Summer Games since 1960, and the United States has never lost. But there was reason to worry, too. This summer, Hansen has appeared a shell of his former self, with rattled confidence. Relays, too, present the possibility of disaster at every exchange, the possibility that one swimmer could leave before the other arrives, a mistake that results in disqualification.
That did not happen Sunday. Peirsol, the world record holder in the 100 backstroke, handed a lead to Hansen, who was beaten badly by his chief rival, Japan's Kosuke Kitajima, and Australia's Rickard Brenton. That put Phelps in a position in which he had to pull off an otherworldly leg.
Challenge Phelps like that, and consider it done. His swim of 50.15 seconds was the best in the butterfly by .65 of a second, leaving Japan and Australia with too much work. With Phelps approaching the wall, Lezak waited on the block. "It's definitely a lot of stress," Lezak said. The gold medal would mean so much to each team member. But it would hold unprecedented meaning for Phelps. When Lezak finished first, Phelps screamed.
"This is all a dream come true," he said.
It is a dream of which others are a part. "No one is bigger than the team," Peirsol said. But athletes marveled at Phelps all week. Leisel Jones, a gold medalist from Australia, said her biggest thrill here was not her own victories, but watching Phelps.
"What do you really say to that other than shake their hand and shake your head, and wonder will anybody come close to that again?" said Ian Crocker, one of so many swimmers Phelps beat here. "Probably not. Not in my lifetime."
How many lifetimes? Spitz's accomplishments came 36 years ago, long before the 23-year-old Phelps was born. And these last nine unforgettable days only represent the middle portion of Phelps's journey. He will be back, he and Bowman say, for the London Games in 2012. He will be 27 then, swimming a program that eliminates some of the grind (the 400-meter individual medley, for instance) and replaces it with sheer speed (the 100-meter freestyle).
"The term Spitzian feat is kind of outdated," Peirsol said. "Now, it might be Phelpsian feat."
Indeed, come up with new terms to describe Phelps and his accomplishments. Sunday, in the culmination of it all, he cried during the national anthem and raised his arms in triumph -- his entire, arduous program, not to mention Spitz, finally in his rearview mirror.