BEIJING – Ten thousand athletes. More than 200 competing nations. And there you are, one man, alone on your block, and it feels as if the entire Olympics do not start until you do.
You are Michael Phelps.
How’s the world feel on your shoulders?
If it’s heavy, you don’t show it. Not in your first final, the 400-meter individual medley, held Sunday in China at church hour, 10 a.m., an incomprehensible time to be thrusting yourself through a swimming pool. But you are Michael Phelps. You got used to incomprehensible long ago. Heck, you redefined it. Nobody is supposed to be as fast as you. Nobody is supposed to be built like you, the legs of an average-height man, the torso of a sculpted giant, the wingspan of an NBA forward. You are only 23 and this is already your third Olympics. You hauled six gold medals out of the last one. You’ll swim eight events. Five individuals. Three relays. Seventeen races, counting heats and finals. Eight chances for gold and Mark Spitz in your rearview mirror.
You do your routine. You wipe your starting block with a towel. You slap your arms across your chest three times. Not two. Not four. Always three. You don’t mess with what works. You collect world and Olympic records the way others collect pins. Who can say at any moment how many you’ve held? Saturday, in the qualifying heat, you broke your Olympic mark. How many is that? Who can say?
You are Michael Phelps.
The whole world is watching.
And there’s the gun. The long road to victory
You are in the water. You are under it. All is quiet. Liquid echoes. You go nearly 50 feet in this blessed silence before you break the surface into the raucous butterfly, first of four strokes in this race.
Face down. You spend so much of your life looking at the bottom of a pool. What do you see there? You have not lost this event in six years. Stroke. Stroke. You touch the wall in first and
Face up. Backstroke. Now you are looking at the roof of the Aquatics Center. President George W. Bush is in the stands. He waves a flag. President Bush? You touch the wall in first and
Face forward. Breaststroke. Now you see the end of the pool. This is supposed to be your weak stroke. Your Achilles’ heel. Do you have an Achilles’ heel? You gain distance from the others. On the breaststroke? You touch the wall first. The crowd roars
Face down. Freestyle. Recently, you told ESPN that, through extensive training, you and your coach “put money in the bank. This is withdrawal time. Hopefully, I have enough money in the bank.” The spoils of fame
You are Michael Phelps. You have plenty of money in the bank – the real kind. You have filmed commercials, signed endorsements, cashed checks, millions of dollars. You are inked with Visa, PowerBar, Speedo, Omega, an MP3 firm, even a mortgage company. But unlike most businesses, they are not paying for what you’ve done but for what they think you’ll do – here in Beijing.
What if you didn’t? What if you crashed and burned? All that money? All those deals? How does the world feel on your shoulders?
If it’s heavy you don’t show it. You come off the final turn with your mother screaming in the stands, and you are a swimmer’s mile ahead of the others. You touch the wall first. You win by nearly 2 1/2 seconds. You smash your world record.
Money in the bank.
“The first one is exciting,” you tell NBC. “I’m really happy.”
Later there is medal ceremony. For others, this is a time of release. But you are Michael Phelps. The Big Story. Nine days. Seventeen races. You hear the national anthem, and you smile with that gold around your neck. Your eyes get moist. But the competitor in you, even now, is thinking only this: