MICHAEL PHELPScould see it clearly, even from 50 meters away. On the final lap of the men's 4√ó 100 freestyle relay the U.S. was in second place, almost a body length behindFrance. As the French anchor, Alain Bernard, powered off the turn and headedfor the finish, a grand Gallic victory seemed inevitable. Bernard, after all,is a rocket of a guy, a 6'5" 25-year-old who broke the 100 freestyle worldrecord twice last spring and whose nickname is the Horse. Though the Americananchor, three-time Olympian and veteran sprinter Jason Lezak, 32, is no couchpotato himself, to overtake Bernard he would have to temporarily becomesuperhuman. It was a lot to ask.
This is an article from the Aug. 18, 2008 issue
For Phelps, therewas nothing to do but watch as his dream of eight gold medals circled the drainon Monday morning at the Water Cube. As the relay lead he'd hit the wallsecond, but it had taken a world record to beat him, Australia's Eamon Sullivantouching first in 47.24. Phelps's split of 47.51 was a mere one one-hundredthof a second over Bernard's world record heading into the Games; only a handfulof men have ever broken 48 seconds—and all but one of them was swimming in thisrace. The French team was strong, it was deep and, in the view of many, it wasfavored. Used to be, at the Olympics the Americans won this relay all the time.But then in Sydney in 2000 they were beaten by the Australians and had tosettle for silver, and in Athens four years later, a bronze, the result of adrubbing by South Africa and being touched out by the Netherlands. Now itlooked as though they'd have to wait another four years to regain this crownand that Phelps would be heading back to Baltimore with at least one medal thatwas the wrong color.
But then Lezak didsomething we all dream of seeing when we watch the Olympic Games: He pulled offa miracle. He regained the lost ground, pulling even with Bernard at the95-meter mark, and then he had a perfect finish, his hand tripping the timerwithout the slightest deceleration. Still, it was impossible to call, and for asplit second in the adrenaline haze no one knew what had happened. Phelps, bentover the block, screaming like a banshee, looked up at the clock. His teammatesGarrett Weber-Gale and Cullen Jones did the same. Every pair of eyes in thestadium took it in: The Americans had beaten the French by .08 of a second.
And then Phelpsleaned back and roared, all clenched fists and tendons; all the joy and all thepain and all the relief distilled into one epic moment. Lezak had swum thefastest split in history, 46.06 seconds, almost seven-tenths faster than thatof Bernard. The Americans had gouged four seconds out of the world record,lowering it from 3:12.23 to 3:08.24.
This was not justfast; this was a new definition of fast. And for swimming, the stakes havenever been higher.
THESE ARE the ninedays that Michael Phelps has been waiting for, planning for, training for; theGames in which he will likely become the most decorated Olympian in history.And in the weeks leading up to Beijing, the world had been waiting to watch ithappen.
At 6:30 onSaturday evening the competition began: 894 swimmers from 162 countries, aglobal convention of V-shaped backs. There were battalions of coaches andsquadrons of officials; legions of blue-shirted volunteers and a quartet ofdancing mascots, all slipping around on the white-tile deck. There was a pairof petite Chinese girls perched side by side on lifeguard chairs ready tospring to the rescue, should it come to that. Every camera angle was manned,every press seat occupied. Some 11,000 people filled the stands as the heats ofthe men's 400-meter individual medley, the Games' first swimming event, hit thewater.
In this first ofthe 17 races that he'll swim at these Games, Phelps set an Olympic record of4.07.82. But that was only a teaser, an amuse-bouche of sport—more than 2.5seconds slower than his world record of 4.05.25. During the next morning'sfinals Phelps shattered both, in a blazing 4.03.84.
Watching Phelps onthe medal podium waving to his mother and President Bush, alternately moved totears, joking with bronze medalist and close friend Ryan Lochte and laughingwhen the national anthem was suddenly cut short (apparently we are no longerthe home of the brave), you'd never have known that he'd just put up thefastest time in history in a race that swimmers consider the ultimate ingut-churning pain. (Phelps himself admits that "the last 50 of a 400 IM,I'm thinking, Please, God, let me get to this wall.") Certainly youwouldn't guess that before the race Phelps had felt crummy, beset by what hecalled "cold chills." Rather, he looked invigorated. And if in the nextday's 200 freestyle preliminaries he cruised through to the semifinals nearlythree seconds off his world-record time, then ended those semis inuncharacteristic fourth place a day later, no one was really that concerned.For Michael Phelps, the real business is done in the finals.
THOUGH PHELPStends to make winning look easy, even a single gold medal performance requiresany number of stars to align. Take the process of tapering, of physicallypreparing not only to be able to win against the world's best but also to do itat exactly the right moment, at an event that occurs once every four years.This, as one might imagine, is diabolically complicated. "When you taperswimmers for a meet, it's like getting a haircut," says Bob Bowman,Phelps's coach of 12 years. "You never know if it's any good until it's toolate." The competitor needs to be deeply rested but not so much thatfitness is lost; loose, but with all of his edge. And there's noone-size-fits-all method: Everyone peaks differently. Phelps's ideal racepreparation, for instance, might destroy another swimmer.
Before the restcan begin, however, maximum performance first demands maximum training—in otherwords, for the taper to work, there must be work from which to taper. InPhelps's regime, this is not a problem. Bowman has a Marquis de Sade knack foradding twists of difficulty to his workouts, things like hypoxic training,during which swimmers may turn their heads for air only at certain pointsduring a lap. There are grueling sets of 30 √ó 100-meter repeats that requirePhelps and his teammates to hoist themselves out of the pool at the 50-metermark and then start the remaining 50—the butterfly—from the blocks. (Climbingout of the water over and over adds an extra aerobic component to a regimenthat's already doing just fine in that department.) "It's horrible,"Phelps says, shaking his head with distaste. "By number 20 you get out,you're holding on to the blocks, your head's spinning, you can't even standup."
"One of myfavorite sets," Bowman says, with a mischievous lilt to his voice. Thoughhis other passion is training thoroughbred racehorses, the coach admits thatthere isn't much crossover between humans and equines: "If we trained thehorses like we did the people, we'd kill them."
YET FOR ALL theemphasis on an athlete's body, a large part of Olympic success lies between theears. By the time an Olympic swimmer emerges from the ready room and walks outon deck to stand behind his block, the equation is far more than physical. He'sspelunking deep into his psyche, emptying his mind of all the clutter. He issingularly focused. "I try to go into my own little world," Phelpssays. And though, like Phelps, a swimmer may be momentarily accompanied in thatworld by Young Jeezy or Jay Z, when the headphones come off, the only voicehe's left with is the one inside his head. And that voice can be friend orenemy.
During the 4 √ó 100final, for example, Lezak recalls, "I saw how far ahead [Bernard] was, andit crossed my mind for a split second: There's no way." But in the nextinstant he was able to scratch that and replace it with, "This is theOlympic Games. I'm representing the United States of America."
If Phelpsentertains any self-doubt during races, it isn't apparent. "This is thething I love the most," he says. "I love to race." But when Phelpstalks about competing, his entire energy field changes. He morphs fromlaid-back dude into quietly ferocious predator. There is no braggadocio inthis. It's simply the knowledge that his talk is firmly backed up by results,the same kind of certainty one would expect when hearing, for instance, TigerWoods holding forth on chip shots.
"That's whyI'd never let him go to a sports psychologist," Bowman says. "You don'twant anybody messing with that."
ALONG WITH thephysical, psychological and emotional considerations of swimming, toss in a fewtechnological ones, which play an increasingly important role and which are atleast partly responsible for the sport's constant parade of world records. Highin the Water Cube, tucked under the rafters, you'll find the former SouthAfrican world-record sprinter Jonty Skinner, now USA Swimming's performancescience and technology director. While the Phelps camp likes to refer to Bowmanas "the mad scientist," Skinner could also lay claim to that title.
"I'm lookingat the race in terms of mathematics," he says, flanked by laptops. "Howmany strokes and how fast the strokes are, all about the turns, those kinds ofthings. Every meter in the pool is covered in terms of analysis." Camerafeeds from above and below the water are also gathered, and all of this data iscompiled and fed to the coaches and athletes in the warm-down area within 20minutes of a race's completion. And then, Skinner adds, "we do acomprehensive blood analysis on them to look at what I would call the metaboliccost, the energetic cost of the performance as well as how theyrecover."
For Phelps, withhis 17 races, recovery is key. Exertion creates lactic acid, the athleticequivalent of kryptonite, and there are perfectly legal ways to minimize itsresidency in the body. Longer warm-downs, for one. Three minutes after Phelps'srace, or theoretically when lactic acid production is at its highest, someonewill prick his ear with a needle and that blood will be measured to see howmany millimoles of muscular waste must be cleared from his system. Phelps willthen swim easily until the readings drop to an acceptable level.
"We're mappinghim all the way," Skinner says. "With so many races, we really want tostay on top of things to make sure he's staying on track and not getting toofatigued."
Along with theseministrations, USA Swimming has also employed fluid-mechanics experts toexamine how water is most efficiently shunted over the human body. Meanwhile,Speedo has invested millions in the development of the LZR Racer, anunprecedented, swing-for-the-fences bodysuit that has been credited with morethan 50 world-record swims since its debut in February.
Tinkering with theangle at which the swimmers' fingers enter the water; computing the flowmechanics of an alternate head angle; charting glycogen levels; encasing thebody in polyurethane: If it seems that nothing is being left to chance, that'sbecause, really, nothing is. Though few things make Phelps crankier than askinghim to tell you his goals (which are famously secret and known only to himselfand Bowman), even the sloppiest back-of-the-envelope calculation makes it clearthat by declaring eight golds as his ultimate challenge—a feat that was quicklymoving from possible to probable after Phelps smashed yet another world recordin the 200 freestyle on Tuesday morning—we are thinking small. This is Phelps'sthird Olympiad, and he's only 23. He could lose one or two or even three racesin Beijing and still walk away with more career gold medals than not only MarkSpitz but also anyone, ever—and that's before you consider London in 2012, inwhich Phelps has said he would like to compete. "I just want to do thingsno one else has done," he says.
And if he doesn'trealize all of his goals, whatever they might be? "He's the best ever inthis sport," says Weber-Gale, his relay teammate. "Regardless of whathappens."
Follow MichaelPhelps's quest for gold medal history, race by race, at SI.com/Olympics.