How Phelps Made Swimming History

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Timothy Clary / AFP / Getty

Michael Phelps stands on the podium after winning the men's 4 x 100-m medley relay. He has become the only person to win eight gold medals at the same Olympic Games

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Take Saturday, for example. Prior to the 100-m butterfly event, Bowman thought the race might be close and figured Phelps could use an extra boost. So he passed along a piece of information that was news to Phelps: that his closest rival in the 100-m butterfly, Serbian Milorad Cavic, had told the media that he thought Phelps losing the race would be good for swimming. The Spitz record of seven golds in a single Games is a hallowed one, and one that has stood for 36 years — so it's understandable that some swimmers are loath to see it broken. Plus, Cavic figured, leaving that eighth gold dangling for the next Games would keep people interested in swimming.

Not the smartest move, Cavic. Phelps, notorious for feeding off doubters and critics of his feats and fame, said he "got excited" by those comments, and managed to drive to the wall 0.01 sec. ahead of the Serb. Enough said.

If the nine days of competition were hard on Phelps, they might have been even harder on his teammates, overshadowed by "the Quest" and yet, in three relay races, a crucial part of Phelps' historic effort. "Of course we are all paying attention to what is going on," said Aaron Peirsol, who swam the backstroke leg of the relay. "But by no means does one person on the team take precedence over any other during a meet like this." Easy to say but harder to believe when Phelps is ushered off to his own press conferences and when nearly all of the questions posed to each swimmer who wins a medal revolve around Phelps.

As for the United Nations of athletes filling the stands in the Water Cube today, most were there to watch one man and one man only. "I think 90% of the swimmers, when they are done with their event, just come here to watch Michael Phelps," said Sandeep Sejwal, a breaststroke swimmer from India. "He deserves all the attention he gets," said Genaro Prono, another breaststroke swimmer, from Paraguay. "Because everything that he does is also better for us."

Andrew Lauterstein, the Australian butterfly specialist who finished third to Phelps on Saturday, recognized the significance of being part not just of swimming but of sports history while he was on the medals stand with Phelps. "I was saying to myself, 'All right, Andrew, this is pretty special, so look around and try to remember this moment standing next to the world's greatest swimmer, someone who is trying to re-create history,' " he said. He wasn't the only medalist who was awestruck. "I feel privileged to be in an era with such a great swimmer," said Lauterstein's teammate Leisel Jones, the breaststroke gold medalist. "I couldn't care less about my swims; winning eight gold medals is pretty impressive."

So he impresses the world's top swimmers, but what impresses the world's top swimmer the most? All Phelps could talk about after his historic achievement was the fact that two of his races were broadcast live, at a baseball stadium and in a football arena, back home. "I want to raise the bar for the sport of swimming as high as it can get in the U.S.," he said. "We've come a long way; I heard that in Ravens stadium [in Baltimore, Phelps' hometown], they were watching the 400 medley relay live with 70,000 people. I heard that at the Cincinnati Reds game yesterday, they showed the 100 fly live. I heard there was an announcement at Yankee Stadium. People all over the place are saying that if you go out to eat and the TV is on, swimming is on the TV. Four years ago, there was no way that would ever happen. I think the sport of swimming can go even farther."

But maybe only if Phelps stays in the water, which he says he will, at least through the London Games in 2012. While he is eager to try out a new swimming program that might feature more of the marquee events like sprints, he won't make any decisions about that until he comes back from a long vacation. "When we train every day, and sometimes we do sets or workouts we don't like, Bob says it's putting money in the bank, and at the end of the year we'll be able to withdraw," said Phelps. "I guess we put a lot of money in the bank over the last four years, and we withdrew pretty much every penny. So after Bob and I both take a little break, it'll be time to start re-depositing."

London would be Phelps' third Games, a mere trifle compared with teammate Dara Torres' fifth trip under the rings. Torres, who is now the second-fastest woman in the world in the 50-m free, continued to prove that age is no limit, missing the gold by the same tiny margin with which Phelps won the 100-m butterfly. "That was awesome," said de Bruijn, of Torres' race. "I've got so much respect for her. She was one of my biggest rivals when I was still swimming. She quit for many years, she had a baby, and then to come back — she is a role model for a lot of swimmers, especially older swimmers."

The years have done nothing to dampen Torres' aggressive spirit. As remarkable as her finish was, she was haunted by how close she came to winning gold, which would have been her first individual Olympic title. "I am very competitive, and I hate to lose," she said. "I told my coach it's hard for me to understand I swam the perfect race and lost by 0.01 sec. He said, 'Look, you went into the Olympics fifth in the world, and now you've got a silver medal.' " Three of them, actually, which is certain to impress her 2-year-old daughter Tessa, back home. "After 2000, I didn't have anything to go home to, but now I have my daughter to go home to. I get home on Tuesday, and I'm taking my daughter to school on Thursday, so I've got a list of school supplies I have to get," said Torres, back in mom mode after her Olympic feat.

Debbie Phelps is in mom mode too. "I tried to put one word to these past nine days, and there's just not one word that would be characteristic of what Michael just did," she said. "Every aspect of watching him compete, perform as an athlete, and carry himself as a young man is heartwarming as a mother." It's a pretty remarkable example for those of us outside the family as well.

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