BEIJING -- In swimming 17 times and winning eight gold medals, Michael Phelps needed the stamina of a marathoner. Burn too much emotion in one race and you're toast in the next one. Even a simple celebratory expenditure after fly or a medley can render a torrid sprinter into a humbled Australian crawler before your eyes.
That's why Phelps' unbridled release of defiance and joy after the U.S. team's remarkable 4x100 freestyle relay comeback was indelible. Part of it was the realization that his quest for eight gold medals would continue. Part was an in-your-face slap at Alain Bernard, the French rival who insisted his team would "squash the Americans." Part was the amazement at seeing Jason Lezak, his 32-year-old teammate, have the race of his life in rallying against the much faster Bernard. But to understand the salient element of Phelps' emotional outburst, you need to consider that it wasn't a first.
Go back to the 4x200 free relay in Athens, where the U.S. quartet of Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Peter Vanderkaay and Klete Keller was a decided underdog to the defending champs from Australia. In that race, as in this year's four-by-one, Phelps, the team's leadoff leg, cheered and emoted from the pool deck as Keller, a good swimmer without a career-defining moment, outlasted world-record holder Ian Thorpe at the wall. There was no possibility of eight gold medals then, since the U.S. men had already settled for bronze in the 4x100 free, but there was the thrill of winning a team race, a feat Phelps has always described as being more satisfying than winning on his own.
Phelps is a team athlete at heart wedged into an individual sport. This was the boy whose favorite childhood sports memories came from team sports such as lacrosse, baseball and football. It was the youth swimmer who talked his coach into making sure that one additional race he'd enter at the next meet would be a relay. It was the college student who would sneak off to a sports bar to watch his beloved NFL Ravens from almost anywhere. Ask him about his favorite race from Athens and he'll go right to the relay. Ask about his favorite race from Beijing, and he'll go straight to the relay. Ask about his favorite out-of-pool memories and he'll talk about indoctrinating the swim team's new members into long games of spades and poker. Ask him about goals and he'll yap about changing the sport of swimming, lifting his game to bring the game to others as he did one memorable day at the Water Cube.