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BEIJING 2008

Pieces Of Eight

Phelps, with go-ahead 3rd leg in 400 medley relay, breaks Spitz's mark

August 17, 2008|Lisa Dillman | Time Staff Writer

BEIJING -- Michael Phelps knew what he was talking about all these years about being the first Michael Phelps and not the second Mark Spitz.

Second to none.

That's what Phelps became this morning at the Water Cube, winning his eighth gold medal, the most at a single Olympics, surpassing the legendary and seemingly untouchable mark set by Spitz in 1972.

The new legend, not a soggy imitation, was written by the 23-year-old Phelps with emphatic, bold strokes in this nine-day meet. He won eight golds in eight finals, seven of them in world-record times.

Eight was enough for Phelps. He and his 400-meter medley relay teammates Aaron Peirsol, Brendan Hansen and Jason Lezak set the world record in 3 minutes 29.34 seconds, lowering the previous mark of 3:30.68, set by the U.S. at the 2004 Olympics.

"Everything was accomplished," Phelps said. "What else could I do?"

Phelps was the third leg of the relay, the butterfly, and he hit the water in third place, taking over from the breaststroker, Hansen. By the time Phelps got it to Lezak, the Americans were in first.

Lezak, armed with a lead, brought it home strongly and didn't have to stage a furious finish as he did in the 400 freestyle relay earlier in the meet.

"It's been such an unbelievable roller coaster," Phelps said. "It's been such an unbelievable ride. With so many people saying it couldn't be done, all it took was a little imagination.

"I don't know what to feel right now. It's so emotional. All I want to do is go see my mom."

And he did just that, looking like one of those tennis players who climb into the stands to celebrate with their families after winning a Grand Slam event.

Phelps waded through a battery of cameras to find his emotional supporters, his mother, Debbie, and his two sisters, Hilary and Whitney.

The pressure on the other relay members was a different kind of stress. Risk-reward ratios were fairly daunting in Phelps Watch. On one end is a gold medal and a world record; at the other, always the potential of being the swimmer who sank Phelps.

Even one of the best relay closers in the sport, Lezak of Irvine, acknowledged high anxiety. And Lezak, at 32, is the oldest male on the U.S. team, and this is his third Olympics.

"To be honest, I was thinking not to blow the lead," said Lezak, who leaves Beijing with two relay gold medals and a bronze in the 100 freestyle. "I was really nervous going into this race. I just wanted to take it out as hard as I could and hold on as strong as I could."

Phelps paid homage to the men helping him surpass Spitz. His closeness with them was obvious as he hugged Hansen and patted him on the head after Lezak secured the win.

"Without the help of my relay teammates, this isn't possible," Phelps said. "We came together as one unit."

Australia (3:30.04) was second and Japan (3:31.18) took third.

Phelps spoke to the nature of the wild ride here, in which he swam 17 times in all, counting prelims and semis. He won five individual events and three relays, and needed Lezak's cliffhanger of an anchor against French star Alain Bernard and then the classic, and controversial, finish on Saturday morning in the 100 butterfly, out-touching Milorad "Mike" Cavic of Serbia, winning by 1/100th of a second

"It's been nothing but fun," Phelps said. "The biggest thing is taking on something impossible."

His joy at taking on and meeting the challenge was refreshing. "I have everything to remember this by," Phelps said. "I have the memories, the pictures. I'll have the memories forever. Every suit. Every pair of goggles . . . I have everything."

Already, Phelps' feat was being put in proper perspective.

Said Australian distance legend Grant Hackett, who earlier had finished second in the 1,500: "Michael Phelps, you can't put it in words. . . . In my opinion, we'll never see it again."

You have to venture outside the sport of swimming to find new -- if not better -- comparisons to what Phelps accomplished in China.

U.S. men's assistant coach Gregg Troy, also the coach of Phelps' closest rival in the world, Ryan Lochte, gave it his best shot the other day.

"There is no comparison in the swimming world to what Michael's done," Troy said. "It would be like playing seven games of a football season and never ever being behind, completing every pass."

The 200 butterfly, in which Phelps' goggles filled with water, could have been an incompletion . . . but turned into another gold medal.

"Even then, he still breaks the world record," Troy said. "It's a far more competitive world than it was at any other time in the past. It's unprecedented."

That word could also be applied to Dara Torres, who came here with nine medals and will leave with 12, winning three silvers. She won two silvers today, one in the medley relay and another in the 50 free.

That old 1/100th-of-a-second thing could not work two days in a row for the United States. Torres, 41, lost by that margin in the 50 free to 24-year-old Britta Steffen of Germany, who went 24.06 to Torres' 24.07.

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