-- All this time, Michael Phelps kept telling everyone, he only wanted one gold medal.
When asked, at all the meets and after all the victories across the country in the past few months, about winning seven, or eight Olympic medals, he would answer: "It's pretty simple. I just want one."
Saturday night, as a torrid summer day gave way to a ghostly Athens evening, the 19-year-old Maryland swimmer got his gold medal, smashing a world record, and transporting himself to a state of tearful jubilation.
It is the fifth time he has broken the record in the past two years.
Phelps, who has been the most heralded competitor of the 2004 Olympics, dashed to victory in the final of the 400-meter individual medley, snagging the first gold medal for the United States.
"My goal is right here," he said afterward, holding up his medal for reporters. "I'm perfectly happy right now."
He also took the first step here in his epic quest for what could be eight gold medals, something no one has achieved, via four more individual events this week and, possibly, three relays.
Phelps has been offered a $1 million bonus by his chief sponsor, Speedo, if he wins seven gold medals, a mark that would tie him with swimmer Mark Spitz, the only person to have done so in a single Games.
Spitz did it at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
But in a beautiful, flag-decked swimming stadium that was not filled to capacity, the Baltimore County resident commandeered the 2004 Olympics' first night of swimming.
After removing his headphones from his black swim cap, he leapt into the lead of the race, in which the athletes swim 100 meters using each of the four strokes.
He quickly nudged below the pace of the world record, which he set last month at the U.S. trials, and the crowd roared as he entered the last 50 meters still on record time.
With his family in the stands, he was jubilant and tearful after he spotted the new mark of 4 minutes 8.26 seconds in the amber lights of the scoreboard.
He grinned, raised his arms in victory, and then lunged into the embrace of American teammate Erik Vendt, 23, of North Easton, Mass., who stunned Hungarian swimmer Laszlo Cseh to steal second place.
"This is a dream come true to me," an emotional Phelps said, his voice wavering. "Since I was a little kid, every single day of waking up, hoping to win a gold medal. . . . It's everything that I've always wanted to do, and the day is here."
Phelps said he was as happy for Vendt as for himself. He said he had heard Vendt scream when his second-place time was posted. "I looked over, and looked up at the scoreboard and just went nuts," Phelps said. "I flipped out."
The blond-haired Vendt, who also won the silver medal in the event in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, was overjoyed.
"I'm the luckiest silver medalist in the world right now," he said. "I didn't even win the gold medal, and I was jerking tears up there on the second-place podium. It felt great."
Phelps said he, too, was emotional. "Right now," he said after the race, "just thinking about it you feel tears coming on."
As the national anthem played with the swimmers on the awards podium, Phelps and Vendt doffed the head wreaths they had been given with their medals, and held the wreaths over their hearts, as if they were at the ballpark back home.
"When you're at a baseball game, or a sporting event, and you hear the national anthem play, you always take your hat off and cross your heart," Phelps explained.
He said he hoped the gold and silver medals in the race would start the U.S. team rolling.
"It's really going to start something for the rest of the meet," he said. "Hopefully . . . we'll be able to feed off the performances we had tonight and it'll carry us to be the greatest swimming team of all time."
It remains unclear if Phelps will swim in all three of the relay races this week, the 400-meter freestyle, the 400-meter medley and the 800-meter freestyle.
His remaining individual events are the 200-meter freestyle, the 200-meter individual medley, the 200-meter butterfly and the 100-meter butterfly.
He said twice Saturday after the 400 IM final that he had six races left, suggesting he had six events on his schedule, rather than seven. But his coach, Bob Bowman, said Phelps misspoke. Coaches try to keep the relay lineups secret until just before the races.
Phelps's work resumes Sunday with the morning heats and evening semifinals of the 200-meter freestyle, which matches him against three of the world's greatest swimmers in the premier swimming event of the Games.
He will probably compete against Australian world record holder Ian Thorpe, defending Olympic champion Pieter van den Hoogenband, and Thorpe's powerful teammate Grant Hackett. The final in the event will be Monday evening.
Phelps is an underdog, and many experts predict that it will be difficult for Phelps to reach the mark of seven or eight gold medals.