- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 17, 2008

BEIJING | Michael Phelps made the final 100 meters of his Olympics count.

Swimming the third leg for the United States in the 4x100 medley relay Sunday morning at the Water Cube, Phelps propelled his team from third to first, and when Jason Lezak held on to the advantage, Phelps completed a weeklong tour de force that is the best in Olympic history.

Eight races.

Eight gold medals.

Seven world records.

The final record came in the relay, a race the Americans have never lost in the Olympics.

As Lezak made the turn, the crowd of more than 17,000 rose to their feet as if to finally acknowledge what was going to be accomplished. When it was over, Phelps hugged teammate Aaron Peirsol and raised both arms to the air, drawing a roar from the crowd.

The winning time of 3:29.34 was .70 seconds ahead of Australia.

Phelps tied Spitz’s record with a thrilling win in the 100-meter butterfly - by .01 second - Saturday morning Beijing time. The sport’s governing body reviewed the video and concluded that Phelps touched the wall first and said there was no way he would have lost the gold - they would have ruled the race a dead heat.

“I’m at more of a loss for words than I was yesterday,” Phelps said. “The help from these guys made it all possible. It just shows how much teamwork and how much togetherness we have. It’s amazing to be a part of.”

On an overcast morning in north central Beijing, the Olympic Green was sparsely populated aside from those entering the arena. Gymnastics didn’t start up for another eight hours, and the 90,000 track spectators wouldn’t start forming until midafternoon. On television screens throughout the grounds was live coverage of the women’s marathon.

The covers of the English-language China Daily continued to ignore Phelps on its two cover pages - the first was reserved for 100-meter champion Usain Bolt, the other pictures of eight prospective gold medal winners Sunday.

None was of Phelps.

Maybe this will get the newspaper’s attention: Phelps’ haul in the last two Olympics is 16 medals (most all time for a male athlete) - 14 golds and two bronze.

“One word: Epic,” Spitz told the Associated Press after Phelps’ seventh win. “I’m so proud of what he’s been able to do. I did what I did, and it was in my day in those set of circumstances. For 36 years, it stood as a benchmark. I’m just pleased that somebody was inspired by what I had done.

“It goes to show that not only is this guy the greatest swimmer of all time, the greatest Olympian of all time, he’s maybe the greatest athlete of all time. He’s the greatest racer who ever walked the planet.”

No question Phelps is the best swimmer of all time - the results confirm that. Same with the best Olympian of all the time - 14 golds cement his status.

But the debate about Phelps’ status in the sports pantheon will be thrown around until the next Olympics in London, which will mark his final international competition.

On an individual scale, it’s time to put Phelps on par with Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer (and possibly Rafael Nadal) as the most dominant individual athletes of our generation.

Going back in time, Phelps’ tour de force is in the same category as Secretariat’s rampage to the Triple Crown in 1973, Rod Laver’s tennis Grand Slams in 1962 and 1969 (which hasn’t been done since) and Sugar Ray Leonard - showing the same kind of versatility as Phelps - winning titles at five different weight classes.

At the Olympic level, the only men near Phelps’ success are Spitz, Eric Heiden (five figure skating golds at the 1980 Winter Olympics) and Jesse Owens (four golds at the 1936 Olympics). Another great Olympics in London, and Phelps can be compared to Carl Lewis for longevity.

Phelps is the rare combination - he’s superior physically and mentally. His long torso allows him to glide through the water; his huge feet have a flipperlike effect with his kicks and his wingspan (greater than his height) allow him to cover more ground. But mentally, Phelps is like all great athletes - he can compartmentalize and focus only on the race immediately in front of him, not the race three days from now or the possible accolades down the road.

In winning eight races (six individual events and three relays), Phelps was a part of six world records.

“The things he’s doing, he makes them look easy,” teammate Erik Vendt said. “You saw in the 400 IM, he did it easy. And to do it in this environment, in this competitive international tournament - if you see this ever again, I’ll be shocked. I don’t think you’ll see anything like this again on this magnitude.”

It was the 400 IM last Sunday that kick-started Phelps’ march toward history. The event is a complete evaluation of a swimmer. All Phelps did was smash his own world record by nearly two seconds and won the race by nearly three seconds.

“Anytime you think you are close to reach him, he jumps to another level,” said Hungary’s Laszio Cseh said, alluding to how Phelps - even with a comfortable lead - swam the fastest final 50 meters.

Next up Monday was the most thrilling Phelps race of the meet … until the 100 fly, that is. In the 400 freestyle relay, Phelps swam lead off and his 47.51-second segment. But by the time Lezak made the turn for the final 50 meters, it appeared Phelps’ quest for eight would end early in the week and he would need a perfect program to even catch Spitz.

But Lezak swam the fastest split in U.S. relay history to catch world record holder Alain Bernard, prompting a wild celebration on deck with Phelps and teammates Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones and Lezak.

Back in individual competition, Phelps dominated the 200 freestyle, leading from start to finish. Korea’s Taehwan Park was second, nearly two seconds back.

“I can copy him, but I don’t think I could be as good as Phelps,” Park said.

Two victories in less than an hour on Wednesday - the 200 butterfly and the 800 free relay - and Phelps was past the halfway point.

Phelps, though, kept stressing that it wasn’t a lock to go 8-for-8. That message has been pounded home by his coach, Bob Bowman, for months.

The two first met up when Phelps was 11 years old. When Bowman accepted the job at Michigan following the Athens Games, Phelps followed him to Ann Arbor, their bond that strong, Phelps’ respect for Bowman that great.

Phelps’ parents divorced when he was a child - his father wasn’t in the stands with the family - and Bowman has developed into a father figure. It was Bowman who taught Phelps how to drive a stick-shift car (it didn’t take) and taught Phelps how to knot a tie before a junior high dance.

“Bob’s the one who helped me really dream about anything,” Phelps said. “Yes, I wanted to become an Olympic gold medalist, a world record holder and a professional athlete. But when I got to him, he was the one who really said, ‘Dream big. Dream as big as you can.’ We’ve gone through a lot together, but it’s all paid off.”

The 200 IM came Friday, and if there was a race Phelps was vulnerable this was it, because teammate Ryan Lochte is one of the world’s best in this event. But here - and this merits nothing - Phelps had luck on his side. Less than 30 minutes before the 200 IM, Lochte had to grind out a world-record win in the 200 backstroke.

Phelps won in wire-to-wire fashion as Lochte could never make a push.

“If he wasn’t in this sport and swimming, I don’t think it would be as good,” said Lochte, who finished third in both IMs. “He’s up there, and he makes me become better and stronger in training. Without him, I wouldn’t be standing here today.”

Phelps has been a boon to NBC’s ratings, which have clocked in at nearly 30 million viewers a night. Now he hopes his performance can impact the sport and make it more than a once-every-four-year phenomenon.

“More and more people are getting interested and hopefully involved,” he said.

Of course, making Olympic history can do wonders for any sport. Just look at the Great Home Run Chase of 1998 between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa that, although later shamed, at the time was credited with saving baseball.

“This really shows that no matter what you set your imagination to, anything can happen,” Phelps said. “If you dream as big as you can dream, anything is possible. I saw so many quotes that said it would be impossible to duplicate and how it wouldn’t happen. This shows you anything can happen.”

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