A Fitting End to an Emotional Triumph

The men's 4x100-meter medley relay team celebrates its victory as a team and Michael Phelps' record eigth gold medal in Beijing.
The men's 4x100-meter medley relay team celebrates its victory as a team and Michael Phelps' record eigth gold medal in Beijing. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Sally Jenkins
Sunday, August 17, 2008


It was done. He was done. The sense of completion was total as Michael Phelps drove an arm in the air, amid a roar that sounded like a giant exhalation from the crowd Sunday at the Water Cube. His unprecedented eighth gold medal, which came on a lashing collective effort from the U.S. men's 4x100-meter medley relay team, was the greatest individual triumph in Olympic history, and there was simply nothing more to win. "Everything was accomplished," he said. "What else could I do?"

Brendan Hansen's breaststroke lap had left the Americans in third place and the gold in doubt when Phelps plunged into the water at the midway point for his butterfly leg. But with one last turn, massive dolphin kick and torso-heaving effort, Phelps glided into first place, and freestyler Jason Lezak brought home the victory and yet another world record, 3 minutes 29.34 seconds, edging Australia and Japan. The four men joined in a water-slick embrace, and then Phelps stood alone and unfolded those extraordinarily long arms toward the thundering rafters. He had gone one better than Mark Spitz, whose record of seven gold medals in one Olympics had stood since 1972, and he had done so with every brand of victory conceivable, swimming his personal best in every single race. "It's been such an unbelievable roller coaster," he said. "It's been such an unbelievable ride."

For the last time at this meet, his 17th race in nine days, Phelps had ambled on to the white-tiled pool deck in that knee-length overcoat, something a gunfighter would wear. He once more went through his pre-swim routine, wiping the starting block with his towel, shucking the coat to reveal the leggings that looked so oddly Victorian, and shaking out those jointless limbs. If he was conscious of the crowd, rising in steppes from both sides of the deck, he didn't show it. He simply stared ahead at the glittering aquamarine water. Phelps had swum with such dogmatic concentration throughout the meet, that it was odd, when it was finally ended, to hear him call his feat an act of "imagination." Still, that's what it was.

Phelps did not seem ambitious in any ordinary sense. He never seemed interested in becoming the all-time Olympic champion to revel in the celebrity of it. He competed less against others, than against some faint abstract outline of the possible. In fact, he seemed acutely isolated, a man with a distant stare and a heart made like a timepiece, executing perfectly aligned strokes with invariable precision, and a seemingly tactile sense of the ticking seconds.

But the greater his success in controlling himself and events, the more he seemed to prize the unexpected, and the unintentional. The races in which he was most domineering seemed to leave him almost flat, as if he had merely done what he was supposed to. His most demonstrative moments -- and emotionally satisfying -- came when he was most anxious and jeopardized. In the 100-meter butterfly Saturday, he turned the challenging words of Milorad Cavic, who said he would like to be the guy to ruin Phelps's Olympics, into a dull, submerged fury. After he out-touched Cavic by a hundredth of a second, he beat the water into great geysers of triumph. He then swiveled his head momentarily to stare at the Serb. "Nice swim," he said curtly, and turned his back.

Ultimate verification of the breadth of Phelps's performance was the fact that his victory over Cavic was just one of at least three moments that will endure as among the greatest in swimming history. There was his world record in the muscle-searing 400 individual medley to open the meet. There was his scream, a cry of the soul, as the Americans came from behind to win the 4x100 freestyle relay, thanks to Lezak's gutty closing leg. There was his dash to victory in the 200 butterfly with a world record despite goggles full of water. "I went from hitting my head on the wall by one hundredth of a second yesterday, to doing my best time in every event," he said, with that crooked-jawed crease of a smile. "It's been nothing but an upwards roller coaster. It's been nothing but fun."

What will Phelps imagine next? London looms. In four years, Phelps will be just 27, still very much in his prime. With 14 gold medals already, 20 is conceivable.

You'd think Phelps would want to actually savor an Olympics, rather than experiencing them through the myopia of a record chase. "At some point you want to have a couple of days to just enjoy the event," said his coach, Bob Bowman. But Phelps made it clear that he's far from content with the haul of gold around his neck. "The goal that I have and am working towards is in progress," he said.

What kind of champion will Phelps evolve into? Eight years ago in Sydney, he was a thin-chested 15-year-old, the youngest American athlete to compete in 68 years, finishing fifth in the 200 butterfly. "Who's this Mark Spitz and why does everybody keep asking me about him?" he said to Bowman. Four years ago, he was a 19-year-old squid boy, as he won six golds, padding back and forth across the pool deck swilling cans of replenishers before plunging back into the water.

In his place here was a fully mature and peaking champion, both physically elastic and mentally unassailable, whose stated goal was expanding the possible in a swimming pool. Facing 17 races over nine days, he actually remarked before the meet began that he wished it lasted even longer. "I'm going to swim my heart out," he said.

He hasn't found the bottom of it yet.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company