Phelps on doorstep of unthinkable feat


BEIJING — This column begins with terrific inspiration: the Olympic flame, steadily casting a bright light high above the track at the National Stadium in Beijing.

I watched some of the morning’s track and field events while closely monitoring the events taking place next door at the Water Cube, where the finest week any swimmer has ever had, maybe the finest week any athlete has ever had, took place.

If you didn’t think the words “Michael Phelps” would appear in this sentence, you’ve probably been hiding in a cave for the past two weeks.

Phelps, who took home six gold medals and two bronze medals from the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, now has six gold medals in six finals.

Have you ever had a stretch of success that rivals Phelps’?

I haven’t either.

Don’t feel bad, Phelps is simply entering the elite echelon matched by only a few sporting legends: Pele, Babe Ruth, Joe Montana, Muhammad Ali, Wilt Chamberlain. You get the picture.

He can tie Mark Spitz’s single Olympic record of seven gold medals by winning the men’s 100-meter butterfly final, his specialty event (does he really have a specialty?) on Saturday and break Spitz’s milestone mark in the men’s 4×100 medley relay on Sunday, the final day of swimming at the Beijing Olympic Games.

Swimming has never been hotter.

And nobody has ever been better than “the American superfish,” a fine moniker penned by China’s official Xinhua news agency.

If you happened to be in the recording studio when Stevie Wonder created his Motown masterpieces in the 1970s, you would’ve witnessed a similar experience happening live.

News flash: On Friday, Phelps’ triumph in the 200-meter individual medley, ending at 10:50 a.m. here in Beijing, gave him another world record.

Naturally, he shattered his old Olympic record of 1 minute, 57.14 seconds, the standard he produced in Athens. This time, he covered the distance in 1:54.23, erasing his last world record in the event (1:54.80), which was set in July at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials.

“What makes him the best is his endurance,” said Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh, the silver medalist in the 200 IM in 1:56.52. “He can swim so many races. In competition, when you look at him, he is the best, so endurance is what makes him so big.

“It’s not a shame to be beaten by the best man,” Cseh decided.

At 11:26 a.m., Phelps returned to Lane 4 for the first 100-meter butterfly semifinal. The result was far from shocking: He won the race in 50.97 seconds. Serbia’s Milorad Cavic earned the top spot for the final, touching the wall in 50.92 in the second heat.

The schedule-makers didn’t do Phelps any favors by putting his Friday morning races so close to each other. But when it was time to race, Phelps brushed aside any distractions.

“I had literally five minutes between the awards ceremony (of the 200 IM) and switching to my race stuff, putting my cap on (and) marching out,” the Baltimore native said.

“There was no time. Now I’ve got a lot of time to rest. I’ve got 18 hours to get ready for tomorrow.”

In his pursuit of perfection, Phelps has been a vehement supporter of increased drug testing, a refreshing change at a time when suspicion of doping in sports is as common as chopsticks at a noodle shop.

“Anybody can say what they want. I know, for me, I’m clean,” Phelps told reporters. “I purposely wanted to do more tests to prove it. People can say what they want, but the facts are the facts.”

Here’s another fact: Phelps doesn’t take anything for granted when it’s time to compete.

He knows that beating seven other world-class athletes in an individual final is a difficult task, even if most of the world’s population is beginning to doubt that losing is possible for Phelps.

“Tomorrow is going to be a tough race,” Phelps said, looking ahead to the 100 fly final. “For me to be a player in that race, I have to be closer at the 50. If I’m not, then it will be tough. I was over a body length behind at the 50 in the prelims and came up a bit short, so I have to be there.”

Sit down and enjoy the race. And expect one of sports’ greatest marks to be tied as Phelps collects his seventh gold and awaits a date with destiny on Sunday.

Final chapters are rarely this special.