BEIJING -- It's a good thing Debbie Phelps has had a lot of practice catching bouquets thrown by her son, Michael, because the clutch of flowers he tossed to her after accepting the gold medal for the 200 IM -- his sixth of the 2008 Games and his record 12th overall -- almost fell short of her grasp. But then again, he was in bit of a hurry.
As soon as he finished his 200 IM victory lap, Phelps had about two minutes to change out of his dress sweats, don his parka, throw on his cap and goggles, plug earbuds into his ears and walk out for the start of the first 100-m butterfly semifinal. His song of choice?
"I'm not really sure what it was," he said.
Day 7 of Phelps's campaign to win a record eight gold medals may go down in his book as his longest. Yes, Day 5 was a bear: He had two finals, the 200 fly and the 4x200 freestyle, with just an hour in between, and he had a goggle malfunction to boot. But he was chatty and relaxed after that double. On Friday, he trudged into the press conference and then spoke in the low, flat tones of the profoundly pooped. His eyes blinked slowly. He appeared to be in desperate need of a nap.
In the pool, Phelps had been his usual indomitable self. His win in the 200 IM was eerily reminiscent of his win in the 400 IM five days earlier. Leading the whole way, he pulled away in the breaststroke -- his weakest stroke -- to beat Hungary's Laszlo Cseh and teammate Ryan Lochte, who had won the 200 backstroke in a world-record time of 1:53.94 just 27 minutes earlier. This time, however, there was little jubo -- as photographers call athletes' post-race celebrations -- from Phelps, just a long stare at the scoreboard and a pained squeeze of the eyes.
If anyone can appreciate how difficult and exhausting Phelps' schedule is, it's Katie Hoff, his former teammate at North Baltimore Aquatics. She took on six events but won medals in just three -- bronze in the 400 IM and 4x200 free relay, and silver in the 400 free. She finished fourth in the 200 free and 200 IM (held on the same day) and "ran out of gas" in her last race, the 800 free, failing to qualify for the final.
"The mental energy and emotional energy and physical energy it takes to go out there and get up every time, even for a prelim -- you have to put some effort in, even Michael," said Hoff. "It's incredible that he's swimming even more than I swam, doing it in world record time and winning gold medals. It definitely gives me more respect [for him], even more than I already had."
Phelps's next race, the 100 butterfly, may be his toughest yet. In the preliminaries on Thursday night, he was a body-length behind the leader at the 50 and finished second to Milorad Cavic of Serbia in his heat. In the first semi on Friday morning, Phelps was sixth at the wall before he overhauled the field to finish first.
"For me to be a player in that race tomorrow, I have to be closer at the 50," he after the semis. "If I'm not there at the 50, it's going to be tough to make up."
Phelps qualified second for the final, sandwiched between two guys who are on their own medal quests. Qualifiying third was world record-holder Ian Crocker, who is gunning for his first Olympic 100 fly gold in three tries. The top qualifier was Cavic, who set an Olympic record in the semis with a time of 50.92. Cavic swims his parents' homeland, though he was born in Orange County and goes to Cal. He, like Crocker, is competing in his third Olympics, and he is tired of disappointment. In Athens, Cavic was leading at the 50-meter mark in the semis when his suit opened up around the neck on the turn "and I sucked in a couple pounds of water," he said. "I went from first to last."
This time, he hopes, luck will be on his side. "I have a feeling this is my time to do something," he said. "This is my moment in life."
Cavic would like to be remembered as the guy who won Serbia's first swimming medal. Better yet, he'd like to be remembered as the guy who ruined Phelps's quest for eight gold medals.
"It would be kind of nice that one day historically they will speak of Michael Phelps winning seven gold medals and having lost an opportunity to win eight gold medals, and when they talk about that, they'll talk about that guy who took it away from him," Cavic said.
"I would love to be that guy."