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Believe it or not, there are winners not named Michael

August 12, 2008|Mike Downey | Chicago Tribune

BEIJING -- "Did you do it for Michael?" "How did Michael feel about what you did?" "It must have made you really happy for Michael."

Michael, Michael, Michael!

He may be America's pool boy, but our other American swimmers didn't come over here to tuck him into bed and hang up his trunks to dry. Their ambition in life was not to train to the point of exhaustion for years in order to make sure Michael Phelps could win a pile of medals.

No, the mission of Mr. Phelps is to capture eight precious golds in a single Olympic Games with or without the assistance of his brothers in Speedos.

Aaron Peirsol nevertheless was asked -- of course he was -- about Phelps, even after the Californian's world record and gold Tuesday in the 100-meter backstroke.

It rolled off Peirsol like drops off a duck.

"It might be once in a century you see something like this," he said of Phelps. "The way he's attacking the meet, he's not just winning, he's absolutely destroying everything."

Phelps came to the Water Cube for a 200-meter freestyle race looking to add No. 3 to a win-'em-all haul.

No sweat.

Exploding off the starting block, Phelps took the gold medal with a clocking of 1 minute 42.96 seconds, knocking nearly a full second off his own world mark. Korea's Taehwan Park was a distant second and the bronze went to Phelps' teammate, Peter Vanderkaay of Rochester, Mich.

"I knew Taehwan was going to have a good last 50, so I tried to start as far ahead as I could in the first 100 to 150," Phelps said.

This was more of a calm, detached Phelps than the one whose scream of victory on the deck 24 hours earlier could be heard halfway to Hong Kong.

After that 4-X-100, do-you-believe-in-miracles relay of Monday, when old anchorman of the sea Jason Lezak single-handedly saved Phelps' booty in a four-man team effort, a lot of skeptics began to believe for the first time that Phelps' eight-gold goal is attainable.

It seemed plausible because that freestyle relay with Jason and the aquanauts had been pegged as one of the events in which Phelps' hopes could spring a leak.

Maddeningly, questions came at Phelps' relay teammates about him, not about them.

Was it a thrill to keep Michael's quest alive? Were you out there thinking that Michael's hopes were sinking? Did you go up to Michael afterward and say, "That was for you?"

Uh, nooooo.

Everybody gave the right responses. All for one and one for all. That kind of thing.

A tongue-tied journalist intercepted U.S. swim Coach Eddie Reese in a natatorium hallway after the race and asked, "How would you sum up Michael's anchor leg in one word?"

"You mean Jason's?" Reese asked.

Duh. Yes, Jason's.

Phelps on the brain. That's what a lot of us have over here, Phelps on the brain, like water.

Let's hope that what Jason Lezak did in that relay earns him a booking on every Leno/Letterman/Conan/Kimmel/Oprah/Ellen show in America.

Phelps skipped the news conference after that race. He didn't send word why.

Chances are, Phelps deliberately stayed away so that Lezak and the others could own the spotlight that day.

He did address it today, how close he had come to losing a gold.

"After the first 50, I thought, 'That's it, it's all over,' " said Phelps, the leadoff man of that relay. "I don't know if I was in shock or what, but I was like, 'Wow. Not really the first 50 I thought it would be.'

"That just shows you how you can't ever say that anything's impossible. Because Jason just proved that anything is possible. He swam that race perfectly."

Meantime, today is a big day for American swimmers -- seven medals in one day, including golds for Natalie Coughlin and Peirsol.

Phelps continued to be the primary object of Olympic attention, however. Even for his opponents.

"Phelps swam so fast," silver medalist Park said, "it is my honor to compete with him."

Vanderkaay of the USA also was delighted at being in the race and winning his first individual medal, which he found "awesome."

"What was it like competing with Michael Phelps?" he was immediately asked.


Sometimes a guy can't win.

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