"[Phelps] is going to do something that will make him look extraterrestrial!" -- a breathless FINA executive director Cornel Marulescu, anticipating the American's eight gold medal at these Games.
Speaking of swimmers and space aliens, my 12-year-old son -- an enthusiastic butterflyer for the dynastic Sleepy Hollow Sea Lions of the Marin (Cal.) Summer League -- is bananas for a BBC series called Dr. Who. The show's title character is a mysterious, time-traveling superhero-geek played by David Tennant, who saves the universe every week while hopscotching between dimensions in a tricked-out police box called the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space).
Allow me to share my own, recent TARDIS-like experience. After a pleasant ten days mainlining NBC's strong swimming coverage in the comfort of my living room, I boarded a Beijing-bound flight last Wednesday. One Ambien, three movies and 6,000 miles later, I cleared Chinese customs, grabbed a cab and nodded off during the drive into the ancient city. I was startled, upon awakening, by the sight of my own saliva on the front of my shirt two iconic edifices. There, right up in my face, was the Water Cube -- its whimsical bubble-wrap veneer is even more winning up close -- hard by the loony latticework of the Bird's Nest, home of the Olympic flame, which lords over these Games like a benign Eye of Sauron.
With a block of free time the following morning, I strolled over to the Cube, flashed my credential and walked ... into my TV set, basically -- like that insufferable boy in Willie Wonka. I recognized instantly the platforms and springboards from which the synchronized divers had gone jackknifing and somersaulting (before enjoying their synchronized, televised vaguely strange showers.)
There, within spitting distance, was the 50-meter sheet that has spawned so many world records that it's a little embarrassing, now, when a gold medalist at these Games fails to break one. And there were those smiling Chinese beauties in their flowing, floor-length silk dresses, escorting eight swimmers to the start.
My timing was excellent. Forty-eight hours after devouring the telecast of Michael Phelps' fifth gold medal -- he'd landed the first blow in the USA's battering of the world record in the 4 x 200 relay -- I was looking down at The Man himself , close enough to see that, yeah, his ears really are that big. Pacing in his robe until the last possible moment, Phelps finally shed that garment, stepping onto the block for the final of the 200 IM.
I was unmoored, I admit, by the absence of NBC's Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines, who, until this swim, had spoon-fed me the back-stories on all eight finalists. Their commentary was replaced, in the moments before the start -- and after it, come to think of it -- by the sounds of silence. Seriously. The Cube was eerily quiet. Obviously, holding the finals in the morning has not slowed the swimmers. Those early kickoffs, however, are taking their toll on the fans. Whether jaded or undercaffeinated or suffering from an incipient Phelps Fatigue, many in the crowd seemed a bit somnolent until the race was three-quarters over, at which point the protagonist hit the far wall leading by a body length, then commenced free-styling his way to Gold No. 6. And then a roar did arise.
In setting this particular world record, Phelps established another, unofficial mark: most blasé reaction to a gold-medal-winning, world record performance. Standing on the ledge, awash in that applause, he looked weary and ragged -- less joyous than relieved -- catching his breath, already thinking about his next swim.
The water on his body had yet to dry before it was time for Phelps to mount the block again, this time for his semifinal heat for the 100 butterfly. Slow to the wall as usual, he qualified second behind Milorad Cavic, a Serbian national now doomed to live out his days wondering what might have happened if he'd only shaved the hair on his fingers.
Cavic could not help popping off, following his semifinal swim, opining that it would be "good for the sport" -- and good for Phelps -- come to think of it, "if he loses." While "bulletin board material" is often overrated as a motivator, I'm thinking that on this occasion, it was a game-changer. It seems unlikely that the Serb's verbiage did not hand Phelps, free of charge, at least one one-hundredth of a second.
Phelps the freak is humanized out of the pool. At his press conference he spoke of the need to "conserve physical and emotional energy." He talked about how he needed to find more speed on the front end of his 100-meter butterfly; that it would not do, in the final, to be too far behind Cavic halfway through the race.
You know what went down after that. He touched the wall at 50 meters in seventh place, and Mark Spitz allowed himself a small measure of relief. Clearly, Phelps had fallen victim to his insanely ambitious program. But with a resolve and grit best described as Lesak-like, he clawed his way back toward the front.
Once there, Phelps lost. To the naked eye, at least. With Cavic gliding to the wall, stretched out in streamline position, NBC's one-man ratings bonanza stroked furiously from behind. Furiously and in vain -- right? Yes, he was gaining, but not fast enough, true? Not true. The scoreboard flashed their times: Phelps had finished in 50.58; Cavic, 50.59. A crowd that had been quiet for the first 15 seconds of the race was now deafening and delirious.
What I missed from not watching it on TV: Super Slo-Mo replay.
What I gained: The ability to watch Phelps as he punished Cavic during the post-race formalities. On the medal stand, Phelps turned to his left and initiated a bro-down, basically, with bronze medalist Andrew Lauterstein, deliberately freezing out the silver medalist, who, to his vast credit, was the picture of graciousness and sportsmanship at his press conference afterward.
Cavic had no regrets. He spoke of how much he was "enjoying the moment." He was "stoked" to be second. While technology was imperfect, he noted -- leaving the door open to the possibility that he'd been jobbed -- he'd take silver any day. He was proud of how he'd handled a pressure situation. He recounted how, following his warm-up, his coach had to produced a pair of scissors "and cleaned up the back of my neck." Were it not for that eleventh-hour tonsorial tune-up, Cavic speculated, he'd probably have lost by two hundredths of a second.
When it was Phelps' turn to talk, he allowed as how Cavic's pre-race rhetoric had riled him up. "I always welcome comments. Anybody has anything to say to me, I like it."
But he spent more time on the high road, speaking of the importance of "dreaming big," and of his desire not just to amass gold bullion, but to change his sport.
I know of one age group swimmer, in particular, whom Phelps has inspired. For Devin Murphy, the guy is right up there with Dr. Who.