Could this have been the defining Olympic moment for Michael Phelps? After seven days and 17 races Phelps had won five gold and two bronze medals in the Athens pool. One more of any color would make him the first person to win eight medals in a single, nonboycotted Games. So where was the celebrated 19-year-old from Baltimore when his eighth and final event was about to begin last Saturday evening? He was in the stands in team-issued street clothes, waving
an American flag and finally enjoying a day off from swimming. Because he had swum the preliminary round in the medley relay, Phelps would be awarded whatever medal the U.S. won, so his historic moment was in the hands of four other guys, and he was going to lead the cheers.
The night before, in what U.S. men's coach Eddie Reese would call "a hell of a gesture," Phelps had given up his spot in that final, one he had openly coveted and had earned by winning the 100 butterfly. He offered the spot to Ian Crocker, the man who had cost him a shot at tying Mark Spitz's single-Games record of seven gold medals by swimming a disastrously slow opening leg in the 4√ó100 relay earlier in the week. "Ian's one of the greatest relay swimmers in history," said Phelps. "I was willing to give him another chance."
The other three swimmers on the relay final had not enjoyed a seamless Olympics either. Brendan Hansen, the world-record holder in both breaststrokes, had failed to beat his rival, Kosuke Kitajima of Japan, in either event. Backstroker Aaron Peirsol had publicly accused Kitajima of using an illegal dolphin kick in the 100 breast, and four days later, in what some suspected was payback, Peirsol was disqualified after winning the 200 backstroke by over two seconds when a judge deemed one of his turns illegal. The DQ was quickly overturned, but relay anchor Jason Lezak's shocking result would not vanish so easily. Like Crocker, Lezak had failed to make the 100 freestyle semifinals, leaving the U.S. without a representative in a nonboycotted 100 free final for the first time in history.
If Crocker initially found Phelps's gesture "a gift too large to accept," he had reconsidered by the time he shot off the blocks on the third leg of the relay. Capitalizing on a cushion built first by Peirsol, who broke the 100-backstroke world record he had long pursued, and then Hansen, who swam the second-fastest breaststroke split in history, Crocker churned through the water in 50.28, the second-fastest fly split ever. After Lezak touched in a world-record time of 3:30.68, Crocker collected his only gold medal of the meet and then found Phelps for a brief embrace. "He said, 'Congratulations,' and I said, 'Thank you,'" said the laconic Crocker. "He gave me a great opportunity."
For the U.S. team it was a happy conclusion to what had been a week of ups and downs. The only constant was Phelps, who turned in one personal-best performance after another, sometimes with just a few deep breaths and his customary postrace Carnation Instant Breakfast to sustain him between races. His wins in the 400 and 200 individual medleys and the 100 and 200 butterflies tied Spitz's record of four individual gold medals by a swimmer in one Olympics. But Phelps's most riveting race was the 4√ó200 freestyle relay. After creating a body-length lead over defending Olympic champion Australia on the first leg, Phelps stood behind the blocks transfixed as one teammate after another held off a charge from the Aussies. When Klete Keller of the U.S. out-touched 200-free world-record holder Ian Thorpe, Phelps went uncharacteristically bonkers, raising his arms high and adding his triumphant yell to the din around him. "That was the most exciting race I have ever been a part of," he said later. "I don't think I have ever celebrated like that in my life."
The women's 4√ó200 free relay provided another emotional high for the U.S. With Natalie Coughlin leading off with a leg that would have won the 200 free, an event she didn't enter in Athens, the U.S. smashed the oldest Olympic swimming world record on the books, set in 1987 by East German swimmers who were part of a sports program that former GDR officials have admitted was fueled by performance-enhancing drugs.
The U.S. women won only two other golds--Coughlin won the 100 back and Amanda Beard the 200 breaststroke--but 31-year-old Jenny Thompson, who added two relay silvers to her pile of hardware from three previous Olympics, became the first American athlete to collect 12 medals in the Games.
Coughlin, on the other hand, tied Shirley Babashoff and Dara Torres for the single best Olympic showing by an American female swimmer. In addition to gold in the 100 back and 4√ó200 free relay, she earned silver in the 4√ó100 medley and freestyle relays and bronze in the 100 freestyle. She might have done more had the Olympic schedule allowed her to test the full range of her talents. She skipped two of her stronger events, the 200 back and the 200 free and took on the 100 free because she wanted to be on the 4√ó100 relay and, like Phelps in the 200 free, relished the prospect of swimming in a historically fast field. "I just got to race the world-record holder and the former world-record holder," she said after the 100 free. "So I'm very happy with the bronze medal."
Not all the U.S. swimmers got the challenge they wanted in Athens. Four years ago in Sydney, Gary Hall Jr. won a gold in the 50 free and anchored the 4√ó100 free relay that was beaten for the first time in history, by rival Australia. "I felt like I had egg on my face," says Hall, 29. "I very much wanted to be part of the relay that reclaimed that medal." Hall swam in the relay preliminaries, but Reese passed him over for the finals in favor of the ailing Crocker and the inexperienced Phelps. When the U.S. finished third, its worst finish ever, Hall publicly criticized Reese for "a poor decision." (Reese said his relay selections were made strictly according to times.) Hall's week ended with a rare triumph, however. After walking out for the 50 free final dressed in stars-and-stripes boxing trunks and robe--a uniform code violation that would earn him a $5,000 fine from USA Swimming--Hall won the event in 21.93, just .02 of a second off the Olympic record. "Very few people have been able to defend their Olympic title," said Hall. "I'm proud to be part of a very small class."
As the winner of eight medals Phelps belongs to an even smaller class, the only other member of which is Alexander Dityatin, a Soviet gymnast who won three golds, four silvers and a bronze at the boycotted 1980 Olympics. "There's nobody in the last 20 years, in any sport, who can say they did what Michael did this week," says Reese. "He was born to swim, and he has great talent, great versatility and great resiliency. And he does the hardest workouts in the world. You don't beat that combination until he retires."
Don't expect that to happen soon. When his sixth gold medal finally reaches him via mail, several weeks hence, Phelps will certainly be in the pool, already thinking about making another run at Spitz's record seven golds in Beijing.