BEIJING — There was little time to ponder the significance of Michael Phelps’ record-tying seventh gold medal in a single Olympiad on Saturday. There were other stories to write before heading out to National Stadium to see the evening’s track and field competition. And, oh yeah, lunch was on the agenda, too.
About 12 hours after Phelps’ nail-biting victory, by 0.01 seconds over Milorad Cavic in the men’s 100-meter butterfly final, Jamaica’s Usain Bolt exhibited super-human speed in the 100-meter dash.
It’ll be impossible to forget either achievement.
But Phelps keeps forcing us to brush aside unnecessary data in our brains. It seems that he’s got us under a spell with this directive: We must fill in the space with more details about his out-of-this-world swims.
The latest detail: He completed the greatest Olympiad any athlete has ever had, finishing it off on Sunday with a victory, his eighth gold medal and seventh world record (who’s counting?) in Beijing, in the 4×100-medley relay. Fellow American Mark Spitz hauled in seven golds at the 1972 Munich Games.
“He’s maybe the greatest athlete of all time,” Spitz said.
Yet the true meaning of what he’s done hasn’t sunk in — and maybe it won’t for a long, long time.
“I don’t even know what to feel right now,” said Phelps, who now has 16 Olympic medals, including 14 golds. “There’s so much emotion going through my head and so much excitement. I kind of just want to see my mom.”
In Sunday’s final swimming race at the Water Cube, where the water is 3 meters deep compared to previous Olympic pools’ 2 meter depth, Aaron Piersol gave the U.S. quartet the lead when the mythical baton was passed to breaststroker Brendan Hansen. His Athens rival, Kosuke Kitajima, pulled Japan from fourth to first over the next 100 meters, completing the distance in 58.16 seconds (his world record in the individual 100 breast is 58.91, set in last Monday’s final). Hansen made way for Phelps after a 59.27-scond effort.
At that point, the U.S. squad had slipped to third in the relay. Japan had the top time at the midway point (1 minute, 51.94 seconds) thanks to Kitajima’s terrific time in what is expected to be his final Olympic race. If that turns out to be true, that he does retire from swimming, it turns out to be one of the greatest closing chapters in history for a Japanese athlete. Kitajima’s dramatic story gets lost in the details of Phelps’ epic performance.
The Australians were next in 1:52.36. Team USA was third in 1:52.43.
Then Phelps made his final big splash of the 2008 Summer Games. He swam the butterfly leg of the race in 50.15 seconds, putting the United States back in front, by 0.25 seconds over Japan. John Elway’s remarkable fourth-quarter comebacks trigger similar memories in my mind in the way he marched the Denver Broncos back into the lead late in the fourth quarter.
Then U.S. anchor Jason Lezak made it official — Phelps’ 8-for-8 effort was a reality. He swam the final leg in and reached the finish line ahead of Australia’s Eamon Sullivan and Japan’s Hisayoshi Sato.
The U.S quarter completed the race in 3:29.34, a world record. Australia earned the silver in 3:30.04 and Junichi Miyashita, Takuro Fujii, Kitajima and Sato gave Japan a bronze with a 3:31.18 effort.
Eight is considered a lucky number in China and the reason the Opening Ceremony officially began at 8:08 p.m. on Aug. 8. There’s no way Phelps will argue with that theory.
For nine days and 17 races, he maintained his poise, his concentration and never appeared to boast about his amazing accomplishments. He simply returned to the pool and set another record, snatched another gold and flashed a million-dollar smile after each race.
Refreshingly, he never forgot to praise the men who helped him win three relays gold, too. Other athletes take all the credit for their success.
“Without the help of my teammates this isn’t possible,” he said. “I was able to be a part of three relays and we were able to put up a solid team effort and we came together as one unit.
“For the three Olympics I’ve been a part of, this is by far the closest men’s team that we’ve ever had. I didn’t know everybody coming into this Olympics, but I feel going out I know every single person very well. The team that we had is the difference.”
Phelps’ string of success began with a win in the 400 individual medley. He added victories in the 4×100 freestyle relay, 200 free, 200 butterfly, 4×200 free relay, 200 IM, 100 fly and, lastly, the record-breaking eighth gold in the 4×100 medley relay.
On ESPN.com’s Conversation site, a forum for e-mail remarks about stories, 1,155 people had posted comments about Phelps as of 4 p.m. on Sunday.
Perhaps these words from a writer named MrSora best sum up what Phelps accomplished in the Water Cube: “We need to come up with a new adjective to describe what Phelps did here.”
Bob Bowman, Phelps’ longtime coach, was a child psychology major at Florida State University. Psychologists generally don’t give long-winded speeches about expecting the unexpected or about the power of dreams. Phelps, however, chooses to follow this line of thinking.
“Nothing is impossible,” said Phelps, uttering a phrase he’s used time after time during the Beijing Games. “With so many people saying it couldn’t be done, all it takes is an imagination, and that’s something I learned and something that helped me.”