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BILL PLASCHKE

We were all in the pool with him

August 17, 2008|BILL PLASCHKE

BEIJING — History came not with a splash, but a struggle.

In the deepest Olympic waters, minutes from a remote golden shore, Michael Phelps was not a speedboat, he was a tugboat.

History came only when he dragged us there.

In front of a Water Cube crowd that roared in disbelief this morning, Phelps kicked a losing U.S. 400-meter relay team from third to first place during his butterfly leg, then climbed out of the pool and wearily cheered as Jason Lezak's freestyle finished the job in world-record time.

That figure -- 3:29.24 -- will be soon forgotten.

The number of gold medals won by Phelps at these Olympics -- eight -- will live forever.

Magical in China, mystical in U.S. swimming circles, the number eight makes Phelps the greatest single-Olympics athlete in history, breaking the record of seven gold medals held for 36 years by swimmer Mark Spitz.

Eight golds, seven world records, 17 races over nine days, one of the greatest feats by any athlete ever.

Immediately after which, his face contorted, his eyes narrow, Phelps punched the air in what looked like relieved pain.

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

When asked how he felt, for once this week, he couldn't answer.

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

And so he did, walking off the podium after his medal ceremony, climbing over a barrier and wading through photographers to hug his mother, Debbie, and sisters Hilary and Whitney.

There were tears. There was laughter. There was his goofy smile. And, with his sisters' outfits matching his latest medal, there was plenty of gold.

"Everything was accomplished, what else could I do?" he said.

He was surely asking himself that same question when he dove into the water today, his team in third place, his final effort forced to be a great one.

And so it was, as he swam the butterfly leg faster than anyone, giving the U.S. team the lead, putting history in the freestyling strokes of Lezak.

"To be honest, I was thinking, 'don't blow the lead,' " Lezak said.

He didn't, and now the race will live as long as those eight gold medals, the final chapter in a book that will probably never be rewritten.

"In my opinion, we'll never see it again," said Australian swimmer Grant Hackett.

It was, of course, a wonder that we ever saw it in the first place.

Phelps entered the meet as a 23-year-old dork with an unsettling Fu Manchu who was on the verge of either major history or giant collapse.

In his career, after every big stroke forward, it seemed he would suffer a belly flop.

He won six gold medals in the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

But a couple of months later, he was arrested for driving while intoxicated, and later pleaded guilty to driving while impaired.

Three years later, he won seven gold medals and set five world records in the 2007 world championships in Melbourne, Australia.

But that winter, in circumstances that still haven't been revealed, the superbly coordinated athlete inexplicably stumbled and broke his wrist.

"It's over," he told his coach, Bob Bowman, at the time. "I'm finished."

He was not finished. As the world has seen since he arrived in Beijing, he is never finished.

He lost the Fu Manchu. He kept the dork.

And in one of the most gloriously individual weeks in the history of sports, lumbering and grinning and splashing through the Water Cube like a kid at summer swimming camp, he found himself.

"I'm sort of in a dream world," he said this weekend.

He was not alone. We were floating alongside him, it seemed, in race after race, gold after gold, world record after world record, each splash bigger than the last.

His first gold came with a beautiful swim and a botched song. He won the 400-meter individual medley by nearly three seconds, after which, during the medal ceremony, the taped U.S. national anthem stopped in mid-lyric.

Some athletes would have been offended. Phelps just stood on the podium and laughed. He knew he would be hearing that song again.

His second gold came with a save. He was part of a 400-meter freestyle relay team that survived only when anchorman Lezak mounted a last-lap comeback to beat France's Alain Bernard by a blink.

Phelps, who swam first, wildly led the cheers from the starting blocks, the world learning that the superstar didn't mind being a teammate.

"That's the fun part of all this," Phelps said.

His third gold was a victory from start to finish in the 200-meter freestyle, a third consecutive world record, and on the pool deck, eyebrows began to rise.

"It might be once in a century you see something like that," said teammate Aaron Peirsol. "The way he's attacking the meet, not just winning, but absolutely destroying everything."

Just when Phelps was looking immortal, his fourth gold medal showed he was human. He won the 200-meter butterfly blind, after water filled his goggles for the last two laps.

"To be honest, I was having trouble seeing the walls," he said.

After throwing off his goggles in disgust, he went back to being immortal, winning his fifth gold medal in the 800 freestyle relay -- less than hour later.

"Everybody is saying, 'How is he doing this?' " said swimmer Pawel Korzeniowski of Poland. "Nobody can believe it."

His sixth gold medal came uneventfully -- only with Phelps can a gold medal be uneventful -- in the 200-meter individual medley.

Then, saving his best for nearly last, Phelps' seventh gold medal came with a miracle.

Trailing Serbia's Milorad Cavic in the final meters of the 100-meter butterfly, Phelps caught him with several giant strokes and beat him to the wall by the smallest record margin in the sport.

One-hundredth of a second.

"I'm at a loss for words," Phelps said at the time.

By now, we all are.

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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