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BEIJING 2008 : HELENE ELLIOTT

Phelps demolishes first challenge on his record quest

August 10, 2008|HELENE ELLIOTT

Beijing The 400-meter individual medley loomed as perhaps the biggest obstacle Michael Phelps would face in swimming for a record eight Olympic gold medals, the event in which his brash, skateboard-loving teammate Ryan Lochte had insisted that he alone among Phelps' rivals wasn't too intimidated to play the role of spoiler along the path to history.

Phelps, cautious where Lochte is impetuous, and self-contained where Lochte is chatty, knew this was the moment that could change the course of his Olympics.

Standing in the swimmers' ready room before the race, encased in a bulky white robe, he looked down at his hands, at the floor, at nothing in particular.

"To be honest, I didn't really feel that good," he said. "Then I started getting these kinds of chills on my body. Right then and there I knew I was starting to get more and more excited."

If this was his biggest challenge in an individual event, there will be no stopping him as he rolls past the record seven gold medals Mark Spitz won at the 1972 Munich Games.

Phelps' victory in a world-record time of 4 minutes 3.84 seconds was thoroughly convincing -- and quite possibly utterly demoralizing to those audacious enough to think they can stop him.

Second to Laszlo Cseh of Hungary after the first 50 meters and second to Lochte at the 150-meter mark, Phelps sliced through the water with unmatched power to take the lead halfway through the four-stroke race.

He never looked back, cutting 1.41 seconds off the world record he had set June 29 at the Olympic trials and leaving Cseh to overtake a fading Lochte for second, in 4:06.16.

Lochte touched in 4:08.09, 2.01 seconds slower than his personal-best time.

Popping up from the water while the crowd roared and fans waved American flags, Phelps pointed the index fingers of each hand skyward, beads of water sliding off his back, and then pumped his left fist. His face was wet, possibly from water and possibly from a few stray tears. It was impossible to tell the difference.

The roar intensified as he climbed out of the pool and crossed the deck, swirls of red, white and blue in the hands of fans from every nation and both Presidents Bush, current and former.

Phelps responded in kind, smiling, looking toward the stands for his mother and two sisters, though he wouldn't find them and send an especially broad smile their way until he returned to the pool deck for the medal ceremony.

Phelps could not explain why he was flooded with so many emotions after the race, feelings he could not even name.

Relief -- of course.

"Ryan's coming on like a freight train," he said of Lochte's early pace.

Joy -- absolutely.

"I'm just happy to get that first one," he said. "I think I am as prepared as I can be at this moment, and that's the best time to be in this position."

Maybe, too, a sense of self-satisfaction that he got so magnificent a start to an ambitious plan that will be judged a success only if he goes eight for eight.

In Athens, Phelps began a record quest by winning the 400 IM and taking home six gold medals and two bronze medals. All that appears to prevent him from besting that here is that he cannot control what his teammates will do in the three relays he's scheduled to swim.

What he was able to control in this race he controlled confidently and smoothly, a flawless performance that resonated more deeply with him than any other he could remember.

"I don't know why," he said, grinning almost shyly. "I wanted to sing on the medal podium, but I just couldn't stop crying. . . .

"I can't express enough how excited I am to start off with this event, how it turned out, and set a world record."

Lochte was no longer suggesting Phelps might be beatable.

How could he?

How could anyone?

"He competed the whole way and he did really well," Lochte said of Phelps. "He had a great race all the way, and I'm proud of him."

Cseh, the European champion, added his own praise for Phelps.

"Any time you think you can get close to Michael Phelps," Cseh said, "he jumps to another level."

It's a level no other swimmer is likely to reach here.

As Phelps stood atop the podium with the gold medal around his neck, Cseh on one side and Lochte on the other, the public address system at the National Aquatics Center played a botched version of the Star-Spangled Banner. Somehow, the tape cut off the first few notes and the last few, surprising Phelps but not enough to hamper his celebration.

No matter. They were playing his song, and he will give Beijing organizers many chances to get it right before these Games are over.

--

Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@ latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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