Water Boy

August 29, 2004

There went Michael Phelps again, virtually alone in the water, churning like a Waring blender, going after one last goal--a $5 blue-and-white inflatable kids' raft.

"Michael!" his mother hollered. "Let it go!"

This wasn't a pool. This was the Aegean Sea, off the coast of Greece, off a chartered yacht, on Monday, three days after his last Olympic event. A friend had left a little dinghy in the water, 100 meters off the stern. So Phelps, a little dingy himself, hollered, "I'll get it!" and tore off like an overcaffeinated tuna.

Here's a guy who'd just swam 17 Olympic races in seven days, logged 70,000 meters for the week (including warmups and warmdowns), which is 43.4 miles, which is about from Athens to the island of Hydra, and here he was, with his first week off from swimming since he was two, peeling off after a toy like it was the Lindbergh baby.

What are you gonna do? Call him Aqualung. He swims for the same reason Paris Hilton shops. He was born to it. He's all torso. He's 6'4" yet wears 32-length pants, which makes him look like a man in a fun-house mirror. He's only 195 pounds and most of that is ears and size14 feet, the bottoms of which were all most of his opponents saw at these Games.

Do you realize that last Saturday night, if he'd been a country, Phelps would have been tied with France for sixth-most gold medals, just behind Germany? He won six golds and two bronzes--the most medals ever in one Olympics if you don't count Russian gymnast Alexander Dityatin, who won eight at the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games, beating three Latvians and a trained goat.

But does Phelps's Pheat compare with Spitz's Seven? Hell, no.

What Phelps did was harder.

Mark Spitz swam only 13 times. He had three bunny relays to Phelps's tougher two. When Spitz won, he had about three countries to worry about, one of which was East Germany, whose men weren't even as fast (or as hairy) as the East German women. Spitz's era to Phelps's era is like peach basket to NBA. Yet this gangly 19-year-old transcended not only his era but also his sport.

Seventeen races in seven days? Do you know how epic that is? It's not just the races. He had to be at every qualifier, heat, dope test, awards ceremony and team meeting. One night he won the 200 IM and was standing on the podium with nine minutes to go until his first 100-butterfly heat. "The whole time on the podium," said Phelps, "I'm thinking, How fast can I go in the fly?"

He had to pee on command six times (how fast could he go?), had to be blood-tested once, had blood taken from his ear by the team trainer for lactic-acid testing 35 times, had the national anthem played in his honor over and over again--Don't you guys know anything else? He was never in bed before midnight and never woke up later than 7:45.

"One morning," he said, "I told Lenny [Olympic Village roommate Lenny Krayzelburg], 'I'm tired, dude. I mean, I can't get out of this bed.' He's like, 'Only one more, dude.' It was just so emotionally exhausting. You've got to get yourself so up, and when it's over, it's so hard to get the emotions back again."

But Athens forever will be Phelps's, for his drive and for his decency.

The kid gave away his spot in his final race, the 4√ó100 medley relay, to Ian Crocker, the teammate whose sore-throat, cement-Speedo leg in the 4√ó100 freestyle relay at the start of the week cost Phelps his chance at seven golds and a $1 million bonus from Speedo. "I wanted him to show the world what he was really made of," Phelps said. Wait a minute. A pro athlete giving up a worldwide prime-time moment to a lesser swimmer out of simple kindness? Uh, driver, what planet are we on?

"All he said was, 'Thanks,'" Phelps recalled, "but you could see in his eyes what it meant to him."

No wonder Phlipper Phelps was the focus of 10 press conferences. Toward the end his answers all started sounding like warmed-up Spackle. He said, "a dream come true," about 1,006 times and declared even more often, "I'm having a blast"--maybe not the best phrase to use in terrorist-wary Athens.

When asked if he will try different events in Beijing in 2008, he said, "No, I don't think so." Wouldn't it have been great if he'd said, "Absolutely. I'm going for the pommel horse"?

And is there anybody he'd like to meet now that he can meet anybody? "Well," he said, grinning like a schoolboy, "Lindsay Lohan would be nice."

Hard to believe, all this from a kid with attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder, a kid whose mother was once told by a teacher, "Debbie, he will never be able to focus on a thing in his life."

"I'm just different in the water," Phelps says. "I just feel at home in it. I work with autistic kids a little, and there's this one kid, once he gets in the water, he's relaxed. He gets happy. That's how I am."

Watching him tear off after that stupid dinghy, you knew that was true--with one little difference.

When Michael Phelps gets in the water, everybody else gets happy.

If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to reilly@siletters.com.

Call him Aqualung. Michael Phelps swims for the same reason Paris Hilton shops. He was born to it.

COLOR PHOTOSIMON BRUTY

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)