BEIJING – The journey ended, fittingly, with Michael Phelps not in the pool but above it, cheering on his teammates. The greatest Olympian of all time may indeed now hover over his sport, but he could not have achieved such heights without a little help from his friends. And this morning, in the last race on the last day of the greatest swimming feat in the history of the Games, his friends brought it home and laid it on the velvet pillow. The final gold.
Eight is enough.
“I’m more at a loss for words than I was yesterday,” Phelps told NBC after breaking Mark Spitz’s mark of seven golds in a single Olympics. “The help from these guys made it all possible. It’s amazing to be part of this.”
And it was an amazing finish, with Phelps, swimming third in the 400-meter medley relay, using his superior butterfly stroke to surge his team out of third place to hand a small lead to Jason Lezak. Then Phelps rose from the pool and, alongside his teammates, watched his destiny unfold. It was close. Nerve-racking. The Americans were flanked by the Japanese and the Australians, pushing them on both sides.
But when it was over, Lezak, swimming the freestyle, touched the wall first, seven-tenths of a second ahead of the Aussies, in a world-record time of 3:29.34, and history fell from the sky and splashed in the water.
The crowd went crazy. Phelps shook his fists. He finally, finally was finished. Ulysses had come home. Eight gold medals in a single Games. In all the Olympiads staged in the modern era, no one ever had done that.
“The Phelpsian Feat,” Aaron Peirsol, who swam the leadoff leg in the relay, declared to the TV cameras. “We’ve all heard of the Spitzian Feat. It’s a new one now.”
The Phelpsian Feat?
Eight is enough. A most difficult task
What Phelps has done in Beijing is somewhat beyond imagination, no matter how many times it is explained and detailed, no matter how many times you read about his calorie intake or the music he blasts in his ear buds. You can hear about 17 races in nine days, all the prelims and semis and warm-ups and cool-downs, but you can’t feel the effects on your body. You can’t sense the fatigue. The muscle drag. The jumpy sleep. The surges of adrenaline needed over and over.
Remember this: There are swimmers who peak once every four years for a single event – in some cases, half a lap of the pool. Dara Torres, the veteran sensation who captured a silver medal this morning China time did just that, foregoing even the relatively short 100-meter freestyle to concentrate on the 50-meter version.
OK, she’s 41 and Phelps is 23. Doesn’t matter. The in and out of the pool, the different strokes, different distances, different mentalities, different knowledge of competitors that it takes to win eight different races is simply beyond comprehension.
It’s a little like a baseball player pitching to himself, hitting the ball, fielding the grounder and throwing himself out. Phelps has enough strokes to row to China.
There was the tough but stirring opening victory in the 400 individual medley, Phelps’ weakest event in which he still set a world record; there was the heart-throbber in the 400 freestyle relay where Lezak saved Phelps’ quest with an amazing comeback final lap; there were blowout victories in the 200 freestyle, the 200 butterfly, the 200 IM and the 800 relay; and there was, of course, the most incredible race of all, the 100 butterfly in which Phelps came from next-to-last at the turn to win by a fingertip, one-hundredth of a second over a smack-talking rival, Milorad Cavic.
And, finally, there was today’s relay, the last Olympic race in this very fast Water Cube pool, which has yielded so many world records, it might just set one with no swimmers in it.
“What was the most memorable part?” NBC asked Phelps as he was flanked by his relay teammates, Lezak, Peirsol and Brendan Hansen.
“The whole thing every race from one to another,” Phelps said. “The one-hundredth of a second last night to finishing off with the world record. It’s the whole thing. It’s a great experience for me and something I’ll have forever.”
Phelps dove into the Beijing water eight days ago with all these medals on the line. He towels off with a clanging golden collection around his neck. A perfect 8-for-8.
Eight is enough. He needed Spitz
“It’s something that you always want to do and dream of doing and you think you can do,” Phelps told NBC after tying Spitz’s mark of seven medals. “But I guess it’s never really real until you actually do it. The biggest thing I’ve been thankful for is I’ve been able to use my imagination. When people said, It’s impossible, it can’t be done,’ that’s where my imagination came into play.”
Spitz was listening to Phelps as he spoke those words. In the past few days, hanging out in the Detroit area with personal and business obligations, Spitz has stepped before the cameras and played the graceful, accepting and now-surpassed icon. That is a somewhat new routine for him. But even the fact that he is in Motown says something. He should have been in China. He was miffed that certain organizations didn’t invite him personally (although he has tried to downplay that recently).
It is understandable. Moving over is never easy for legends. Hank Aaron did a decent job of it for Barry Bonds. Russian wrestling legend Alexander Karelin lowered his hands in respect to Rulon Gardner, after the American snapped his 13-year undefeated streak at the Sydney Olympics.
Spitz, 58, has been more enigmatic about surrendering his status. The man who won all that gold in 1972 without a swim cap, a speed suit or a haircut, the man who later flopped in attempts at movies and TV and who now makes investments, corporate endorsements and motivational speeches, recently said this about the comparison between Phelps and him to Sports Illustrated:
“The guy who probably has more of a problem with it is Michael. Michael can’t be Michael. Michael’s middle name is Mark Spitz,’ basically.”
It is an inelegant thing to say – and not the only one Spitz has said. And yet, it is not a lie. Without Spitz, there is no Michael Phelps Story. He is just a phenomenal athlete piling up the golds. If you don’t think so, tell me who holds the record for most golds by a female swimmer. Or an Olympic archer. Someone does. But if you don’t know who – if it hasn’t been sold to you as unbreakable – you don’t care. Phelps actually shares the equally impressive record of most medals in a single Games (eight) with a Soviet gymnast named Alexander Dityatin. Do you even know who Dityatin is?
Spitz, by being so high-profile in Munich 36 years ago, provided a mark that America always could locate. And if it’s one thing we love in America, it is new stars trying to eclipse old ones. Spitz gave an invaluable high bar to Phelps. It is the reason Michael can live richly for the rest of his life by simply having his picture taken, and Matt Biondi cannot. Biondi won five swimming gold medals in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and seven overall. Pretty amazing feat, right? A few tenths of a second here or there, and he would have equaled Spitz.
Did you remember him until I mentioned him?
Could you recognize him in a lineup?
No such problem for Phelps now. He is the face of these Beijing Games, the tall, gangly, toothy-smiled guy who was getting roars and gasps when he was introduced for a race.
“It’s cool,” Phelps told NBC of all the attention he had gotten. “I’m having fun. It’s all I wanted to do.” One for the ages
And now he gets to do what he hasn’t been able to do more than a week: relax. Let others chronicle his story.
You can start the clock on this amazing journey on Day 1 of the competition in Beijing, but it really begins years ago, when Phelps, as a child, jumped in a Baltimore pool, partly as a way of dealing with his hyper energy and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
It continues through his first national record at age 10, through his qualifying for the 2000 Sydney Olympics when he was only 15, for his amazing performance in Athens four years later (six golds and two bronzes), for his four years in Ann Arbor swimming for Club Wolverine, for all the unseen early-morning training swims, day after week after month after year, all the way through the media circus in China from Day 1 until the final touch of the wall in the 400 medley today.
Through it all, he handled things with grace. He may not major in speeches (his most common sentence was “I’m at a loss for words”), but he did things right, he was deferential to the Olympians before him, congratulatory of his teammates, and, of course, sweet to his mother, who has been captured on TV almost as much as her son.
Of all the things said about Phelps during this run, perhaps Peirsol said it best, when asked by the media when we might see another one like him.
“I’m not sure when. It might be once in a century you see something like this,” he said.
If so, it’ll be a memorable 100 years. Phelps stands alone, but he didn’t do it alone, and that final image from the Water Cube, Phelps roaring with teammates who shared a common flag and a common dream, is maybe the best snapshot of all.
Eight is enough. The pool is closed. Put your weary feet up, Michael Phelps, and enjoy what you’ve done.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. www.freep.com/mitch.