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,
The popular phrase used to be "Herculean" -- Phelps surpassed
"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
"I just don't think there is a perspective for him," said
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
Now the debate resumes on Phelps' proper place in the Olympic pantheon. (Did Hercules have to go through this?
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
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
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.