Big Splash!

Simon Bruty / Sports Illustrated

Phelps' goggles filled with water, but he managed a fourth gold and a record in the 200-m fly.

Athletic prowess is a double-edged sword: part gift and part gumption, some luck blended with sacrifice, pain and, on a few occasions, true glory. Olympic races produce such moments, and swimmer Michael Phelps now has experienced more of them than any other athlete, including a part in the stunning 4 × 100-m-relay win anchored by Jason Lezak.

If Phelps seemed nonchalant about the honor of Greatest Olympian--"It's a pretty cool title, I guess," he said--it's not because he doesn't appreciate or respect what it means. He has always been ambivalent about his achievements, yearning for the thrill of racing but struck...

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