Golden Phelps eager for his own bed
By Paul Newberry
BEIJING ó Michael Phelps kept every swimsuit, every cap, every pair of goggles he wore during nine magical days at the Water Cube. Every memory will be savored, too, from goofing off with his U.S. teammates to bowing his head not one, not two, but eight times to receive a gold medal at the Beijing Games.
iThere are moments Iíll never forget,î he said.
Neither will the whole world.
Phelps took down the grandest of Olympic records Sunday in the final event at the pool, helping the Americans rally for a world-record win in the 400-meter medley relay. That victory, one more than Mark Spitz managed at the 1972 Munich Games, assured him a place in sports history and a legacy of, well, does he even need one?
Wait, thereís more. In his pursuit of Spitz, which actually began four years ago with six gold medals in Athens, Phelps became the winningest Olympian ever with 14 victories, five more than any other athlete.
Even though the Americans have never lost the medley relay at the Olympics, the latest gold was hardly a breeze. When Phelps dived into the water for the butterfly ó the third of four legs ó the Americans were third behind Japan and Australia.
But Phelps, swimming the same distance and stroke that he used to win his seventh gold a day earlier, powered back to the front on his return lap, passing off to Jason Lezak with the Americans in front. Australiaís Eamon Sullivan tried to chase down Lezak and appeared to be gaining as they came to the wall. But Lezak touched in 3 minutes, 29.34 seconds ó the seventh world record of Phelpsí remarkable run.
Afterward, Phelps gathered his three mates in a group huddle, then hugged each one of them separately. He thanked them for their role in the last of his three relay wins. They congratulated him for his remarkable feat.
iIt was cool,î backstroker Aaron Peirsol said. iWe got to be a part of it.î
Another member of the relay team, breaststroker Brendan Hansen, was most impressed by the way Phelps detached himself from all the hype once he got away from the pool. Heíd set a world record in the morning, then go back to the village and act like nothing had happened.
iIíd be like, íDo you realize what youíre doing?îí Hansen said. iAnd heíd be like, íMan, the pizza is good today.îí
But deep down, Phelps was soaking it all in ó the glory and the minutiae. He had all the medals hanging in his room. By the end of the games, Hansen quipped, they resembled a wind chime.
As much as he relished the actual races, what he really seemed to treasure most were those behind-the-scenes moments. Unlike Spitz, who was viewed as aloof and even arrogant by his fellow swimmers, Phelps got along with all his teammates, even though they all knew he was in a league of his own.
He hung out with them during his down time in the athletesí village, playing cards and the world-conquering game Risk. He made a point to engage the Olympic rookies he didnít know very well. He did what lots of other 23-year-olds did ó play hip-hop music and text his buddies.
iI just wanted to make sure I took every single moment in and every single swim in, every single moment with my teammates, so I would remember them,î Phelps said. iI donít want to forget anything that happened.î
No one else does, either.
Everyone at the pool was mesmerized by Phelps, even if they were competing for another country.
iI couldnít care less about my swims,î said Australiaís Leisel Jones, who won two gold medals. iTo swim in the same era as him has been awesome.î
Spitzís record had stood since the Nixon administration. Australian coach Alan Thompson figures it might take even longer for someone to take down the new mark.
iWeíve been talking about Mark Spitz for 36 years now,î Thompson said. iI donít know if Iím going to be alive when they stop talking about this bloke. You wonder if we are going to see someone as good as this again.î
After Spitzís performance in 1972, there surely were folks who believed an unattainable record had just been set, that no one would ever collect so many gold medals at a single Olympics. But that merely set a new target for everyone.
Phelps was the one who finally hit the bullís-eye.
iBeing able to have something like that to shoot for, it made those days when I was tired and I didnít want to be there … it made those days easier to look at (Spitz) and say, `I want to do this,îí Phelps said. iIím just thankful for him having done what he did.î
Somewhere, thereís probably a child who will head to the pool a little early to get started on his dream of winning nine gold medals.
Phelps surely hopes so. Every chance he gets, he talks of wanting to raise the sportís profile in the U.S., where it barely gets noticed in non-Olympic years outside of neighborhood swim meets. He was the star attraction in Beijing, drawing huge television ratings back home ó where the morning finals could be shown live in the evening.
President Bush watched Phelps win two races. Basketball stars Kobe Bryant and LeBron James were there Sunday, rooting him on to his eighth gold.
iThe sport of swimming has come a long way so far, and I think it can go even further,î he said. iI can take it even further.î
The kid who was scared to put his face in the water has grown into the face of his sport. There surely will be plenty of promotional appearances in the days and weeks to come, as Phelps tries to capitalize on his accomplishments while theyíre still fresh in the publicís mind. He hopes to bring everyone along for the ride.
iMike is opening a lot of doors with what heís doing,î Peirsol said. iHopefully the sport can build on this momentum.î
Not that anyone will see Phelps in a LZR Racer anytime soon. Heíll take a nice, long break from swimming. The early morning wake-up calls, the grueling weight sessions, the endless laps in the pool ó all are on hold for now.
Besides, he has to pack. Phelps will be moving back to Baltimore after spending the last four years in Michigan, where he grew into a man and learned to be on his own for the first time.
Home sounds pretty good to the 23-year-old Phelps, who has a strong relationship with his mother, Debbie, and two older sisters. Phelpsí parents split when he was only 7, and the relationship with his father has long been strained, but the women in his life cheered him every step of the way in Beijing.
After the eighth gold, Phelps climbed into stands to give all three of them a kiss. Debbie gave her boy a little extra hug, tears streaming down her face.
iI just want to lay in my own bed for five minutes at least and just relax,î Phelps said. iOne of the things Iím really looking forward to is getting back to Baltimore.î
Not that heís breaking up his hugely successful partnership with coach Bob Bowman. Theyíve been together since Phelps was an overactive 11-year-old, bouncing off the walls when he wasnít beating everyone in the pool. They headed off to Michigan together when Bowman took a job there. Now, the coach is returning to the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, where their relationship was forged.
Phelps plans to return to the pool in plenty of time to get ready for next yearís world championships in Rome, where heíll start to tinker with the program that worked so well in Athens and was even better in Beijing. He plans to dump the 400 individual medley, the most grueling race on his schedule, and would like to take on some shorter events.
The 100 freestyle is the most likely addition.
iHe thinks itíll be a little easier,î Bowman said. iHeís more naturally suited for longer distances. Itíll be change for him, but I think itíll be a good one.î
Four years from now, Phelps has every intention of returning for the London Games, where heíll be able to add to his already remarkable record.
iBob has a saying, íPutting money in the bank,í i Phelps said. iWhen we train every day, sometimes there are workouts you donít like, donít want to do. Bob says youíre putting money in the bank.
iI guess I put a lot of money in the bank over the last four years, and we withdrew pretty much every penny in the bank. After Bob and I both grab a little break, itíll be time to start depositing.î