Skip to main content

Phelps' golden quest: A little luck, some drama and legendary talent


BEIJING -- On a sticky Sunday morning when history and mythology were intertwined, a 23-year-old swimmer with the slack-jawed smile and an acute sense of the moment churned through Lane 4 of the Water Cube and into sports immortality and the common currency of the English language. In rewriting swimming and Olympic history with his eighth gold medal, Michael Phelps was rewriting the dictionary. As backstroker Aaron Peirsol, who started the 4x100 medley relay, would say, "The term Spitzian might be outdated now by the Phelpsian feat."

The popular phrase used to be "Herculean" -- Phelps surpassed MarkSpitz's record of seven Olympic gold medals but is only two-thirds of the way to Hercules' all-time mark of 12 labors -- but Hercules merely had to muck the Augean Stables, capture the Cretan Bull and take some golden apples of the Hesperides. Golden apples, gold medals. Tomato, tomahto. You tell me the grander accomplishment: completing the labors in those mythical days of B.C. or Phelps performing his prodigious feats in 2008 NBC? Hercules did not have to do 17 swims in nine days, overcome a trash-talking French relay team in the 4x100 freestyle relay, battle through malfunctioning goggles in the 200-meter butterfly final, out-touch a mouthy U.S.-trained Serbian in the 100 fly by 0.01 or do any of this before a global audience.

"It still is an amazing feat," Phelps said of Spitz's seven-for-seven in 1972. "It will always be an amazing accomplishment in the swimming world and also the Olympics. Being able to have something like that to shoot for ... it made those days when you were tired and didn't want to be there, [when] you just wanted to go home and sleep [through] the workout, it made those days easier. I'd look at him and say, 'Well, I want to do this.' It's something I've wanted to do, and I'm thankful for having him do what he did."

Phelps wrote this amazing tale, but others tell it far better. They are his Greek chorus, the ones who were only too happy to comment and bear witness. (Phelps' body language -- his joy on the pool deck after the U.S. overtook France in the freestyle relay, for example -- is a far better quote than he is.) Rather than resentment at being subsumed by all things Phelps, they seemed happy to breathe in the same chlorine fumes, to warm themselves in the glow of his reflected glory.

For Australian breaststroker Liesel Jones, having a walk-on in the Phelps epic surpassed even her own two golds and one silver medal in Beijing. "In an era of such great swimmers, I think (watching Phelps win eight gold medals) has been my highlight," she said. "I couldn't care less about my own swims."

"I just don't think there is a perspective for him," said Simon Burnett, British anchor of the 4x100 medley relay freestyle, when asked to put Phelps in perspective. "He's beyond everything we know. In Athens when he was going for eight golds, I said it would never happen -- not in this day and age with semifinal swims and the competition level. Phelps has taken every expectation and broken it. He seems to be the only guy who sees the impossible as possible, and that's what makes him the best. Once he crosses the threshold, other people are able to foresee it happening. If he can do it, we can do it. But he's always one step ahead of us."

For the eighth wonder of the Olympic world, the 4x100 medley relay should have been the least of Phelps' tasks considering the United States had never lost the race (in non-boycotted Olympics) since the event joined the program in 1960. In theory, this was going to vaguely resemble the final stage of the Tour de France, although Jason Lezak, swimming the freestyle anchor, wouldn't be sipping champagne and waving to the crowds along the Champs D'Elysées. But as breaststroker Brendan Hansen turned it over to Phelps, swimming butterfly, the third leg, the U.S. team was stuck in third behind Japan and Australia. With history and mythology in the balance, Phelps performed his final Phelpsian task, blowing by the swimmers in the surrounding lanes. When he finished the most remarkable performance in a single Olympics in the 112 years since Baron Pierre de Coubertin reawakened this ancient symposium of sweat, he had handed over a quarter-of-a second lead. Phelps had swum the fastest butterfly split by .74 seconds, or roughly half a lifetime.

Now the debate resumes on Phelps' proper place in the Olympic pantheon. (Did Hercules have to go through this? Hey, didn't Atlas have serious chops?) You take Phelps, who has won a record 14 golds among his 16 Olympic medals, and somebody will raise you a Larissa Latynina, the Soviet gymnast who holds the record with 16 medals or German kayaker Birgit Fischer, who started in 1980 and finished in 2004 with eight golds and four silver while paddling single, doubles and fours or U.S. sprinter/long jumper Carl Lewis, who finished first eight times and won nine gold medals (thank you, Ben Johnson) while competing in four Games.

In the overheated bubble of the Olympics, with Phelps' hair barely dry, there is an impulse to proclaim tomorrow's headline as the greatest and be done with it. But longevity as well as accomplishment defines the best in their disciplines and Phelps could use one more productive Olympics in London to secure the top step of the podium in future barroom debates. If he turns to the sprint -- as coach Bob Bowman hopes -- and continues to lord it over the swimming world, he would be displaying the versatility of Paavo Nurmi, the Finnish runner who won nine golds at three distances over three Olympics.

But that Greatest Olympian Ever discussion should be reserved for another day or even another decade when eight-for-eight can marinate in the mind. Eight is the Chinese lucky number; surely Phelps had his racing luck. If not for Lezak's glorious swim on the freestyle relay last Monday, the historic quest would have run aground before it had really started. "I thought he would win six or seven, but with a little bit of luck he'd probably get eight," said Grant Hackett, the Australian distance swimmer and a close friend. "Everything lined up perfectly."

Once Phelps meets all the obligations of Olympic hero, he will disappear for a while. He admitted he was tired during various moments of the week, winning freestyles and butterflys and relays and maybe killing the Nemean Lion in his spare time. He just wants some sack time in his own bed in Baltimore. After a Phelpsian performance, he has earned it.