This was a perfect example of Phelps swimming under control. He entered the final as just the fourth seed, casually qualifying on Monday after finishing third in his heat in a relaxed 1:46.28. On Tuesday, he followed the cue set by his coach, Bob Bowman, to get out fast and build a lead over Park Tae-hwan, the Korean who won the 400-meter free a day earlier. "I knew he was going to finish strong," Phelps said of Park. "He always does in races. I saw his time was incredibly strong in the 400 freestyle. I knew going into the last 50 meter I wanted to have a good lead on him."
Phelps put together 50-meter splits of 24.31, 25.98, 26.55 and 26.12 and never lost the half-bodylength lead he forged in the first 25 meters. By his standards, the race was a stroll compared to the 4x100 free relay a day earlier in which Jason Lezak led a spectacular rally past the French team over the last lap. "It wasn't easy putting that race behind you," Phelps said. "It was an emotional relay. I had to force myself to get it out of my head. I have so many races, so much to do in every race. I have to keep 100 percent focused. No matter how good that race was, you have to force it out of your head. If we had to do that race again, I'm not sure we could. It was the perfect race at the perfect time."
With five events to go, he has done everything asked of him in both his difficult races and one of his easier ones. That sets him up well for Wednesday, when he'll swim the finals of the 200-meter butterfly and the 4x200 freestyle relay less than an hour apart. Later in the session, he'll also swim his first heat of the 200-meter individual medley. "It's all mental with Michael," Peirsol said. "He's pushed us and we've all pushed each other. The way he's pushed us hopefully elevates everyone else."
With all the fanfare surrounding Phelps, it's easy to overlook the preeminence of Peirsol, 25, who has blown people away in the backstroke over the balance of the decade. On his résumé, he now owns 11 gold and 14 total medals from world championships and Olympic Games. He has become beatable over the last few years, but every time people think they find cracks in Peirsol's armor, he finds his next gear at major competitions. On Monday, Peirsol finished third in his heat and posted only the fifth-fastest qualifying time of the session in the semifinals. He confessed on Tuesday that the modest effort wasn't entirely strategic restraint. "I'm absolutely elated at how everything went," he said. "I had my doubts after yesterday, because everyone was swimming so well. [Winning] never gets old. Really it feels like the first time. I always train to be able to win on my worst day, and I knew what I had to do to get my hand on the wall."
Peirsol has made the successful transition from one who can show up and win nearly every race to an older, wiser swimmer who gets the most out of himself at exactly the right times. His form and his even comportment are hard to match. "His stroke technique is perfect," said Matt Grevers, Peirsol's teammate who finished second on Tuesday in 53.11 seconds. "I don't know if it's just his shoulder strength. He always takes the most water with him. He beat the field by half a second. He said it was a close race, but he kind of killed us. He's a very cool guy. I don't think he lets nerves get to him as much as most do."
Nerves haven't bothered the U.S. swimmers much at all in Beijing. With a pair of world records on Tuesday the squad has now amassed 15 of the country's 21 medals, a figure that leads the Games. "We're on a roll now," said Peirsol. "Everybody sees the success around them and wants a piece of the pie."