BEIJING—Four years ago, when Michael Phelps had completed the lifelong dream and was clutching his first gold medal, his mother and two sisters scoured a fence line dividing swimmers from spectators in Athens.
In the middle of hundreds of prying eyes, a hand reached through the fence during an intimate moment. Huddling close, Phelps’ mother Debbie and his sisters Hillary and Whitney locked their eyes on the glimmering medal hanging from a ribbon. They all cried. Even now, when one of them tells the story, they struggle to keep the tears back.
“Michael stuck his medal through the fence and we were all there. It was so special,” Hillary said. “He stuck the medal through and was like, ‘Look what I did! I did it. I did it.’”
Four years later, on Wednesday in Beijing, Phelps repeated the feat for the 10th and 11th times, winning the 200-meter butterfly and swimming the opening leg of the 4x200 freestyle relay, giving him more gold medals than any Olympian in the history of the games. The former mark of nine golds was held by American icons Carl Lewis and Mark Spitz and Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi and Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina.
Phelps set his fourth world record at these games in capturing the 200 fly, notching a time of 1 minute, 52.03 seconds, which is .06 seconds faster than the world record he set in the prelims one day earlier. And he was part of his fifth world record when the 4x200 free team finished in 6:58.56, gouging a ridiculous 4.64 seconds off the previous mark.
“It is very hard to be swimming the relay also on the same day (as the butterfly). I don’t know how he is doing this,” said Pawel Korzeniowski, who finished sixth behind Phelps in the fly. “Everybody is thinking ‘How can he do this and break world record?’”
Amazingly, Phelps won the 200 fly despite having issues with his goggles. Once getting to the blocks, he flung off his cap and goggles and vigorously rubbed his eyes.
“I couldn’t see anything for the last 100,” Phelps said. “My goggles filled up with water. It just kept getting worse and worse through the race and I was having trouble seeing the walls, to be honest.”
Even with the technical issues, Phelps’ wins smacked of every other individual race in these games, when Phelps was only shoulder-to-shoulder with his foes for a mere moment—standing on the starting blocks. After that, the world has been a witness to prolonged amazement, to the point where his races in Beijing have attracted the likes of U.S. President George W. Bush, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and countless other individuals who are stars in their own right.
But to truly understand Phelps’ impact, you have to listen to his teammates, who have spent their lives training for this moment but are finding an extra bit of inspiration watching Phelps.
Swimmers like America’s Aaron Peirsol, who will go down as one of the best U.S. swimmers ever, having captured three gold medals in Athens and who is favored to leave Beijing with three more. One of Phelps’ more measured teammates, Peirsol has always been respectful of his touted teammate, while also repeatedly pointing out that the rest of American swimming is pretty good, too. His message has never been subtle: Phelps is great, but he’s still part of a team.
And yet, even Peirsol was among those most impressed on Tuesday, when Phelps had captured his third straight gold while setting a third world record.
“It may be once in a century we see something like this,” Peirsol said. “The rest of the world is catching up to the U.S., the way I look at it—quite a bit. For him to be doing what he’s doing at this moment in time, with the rest of the world coming up the way it is, I think that speaks volumes. And the way he’s attacking this meet, too—he’s not just winning, he’s absolutely destroying every race. It’s awesome to watch. It’s inspiring to me.”
“Every time I watch him swim, I’m more and more in awe of what he does,” said three-time gold medalist Natalie Coughlin. “… Being his teammate and being part of the team while he’s doing all this kind of gives us a different perspective. I think years and years down the road we’ll realize more and more how amazing and special he is.”
And yet, in a charming way, Phelps hardly seems to notice it—in a way that truly doesn’t smack of false modesty. When Phelps locked up his ninth gold, his coach, Bob Bowman, casually reminded him of the company he had entered: Lewis, Spitz, Nurmi and Latynina—four supremely talented athletes who, before Wednesday, had created the most elite Olympic fraternity.
“You’re tied,” Bowman told Phelps.
“Huh,” he replied. “That’s pretty cool.”
And maybe that nonchalance was part of how Phelps got to Wednesday, and how he will take the gold medal record and advance it to the stratosphere. Fourteen, sixteen, eighteen—there is no telling how many gold medals Phelps will have when he is through. And he rarely thinks about the big picture, anyway, which may be one of the defining traits of his greatness.
“He never tries to make a quantum leap,” Bowman said. “It’s always just one more step. When you’re kind of at the top of the mountain, the steps are pretty high. Even one more step takes you pretty far away from everyone else.”
Wednesday’s step is arguably more remarkable than any step in the games that came before it. From Athens to Beijing, Phelps has now gone where no Olympian before him has traveled.