Published August 17, 2008
BEIJING – Michael Phelps locked arms with his three teammates, as though they were in a football huddle calling a play, then hugged each one of them.
It took a team to make him the grandest of Olympic champions. And one last big push from Phelps himself.
Going hard right to the end of a mesmerizing nine days in Beijing, Phelps helped the Americans come from behind Sunday in a race they've never lost at the Olympics, cheering from the deck as Jason Lezak brought it home for a world record in the 400-meter medley relay. It was Phelps' history-making eighth gold medal of these games.
"Everything was accomplished," he said. "I will have the medals forever."
Phelps sure did his part to win No. 8, eclipsing Mark Spitz's seven-gold performance at the 1972 Munich Games.
Aaron Peirsol got the Americans off to the lead in the backstroke, but Brendan Hansen — a major disappointment in this Olympic year — slowed them down with only the third-fastest breaststroke leg.
By the time Phelps dived in for the butterfly, the U.S. was trailing Australia and Japan.
That's when he really went to work.
With his long arms whirling across the water like propellers, Phelps caught the two guys ahead of him on the return lap and passed off to Lezak a lead of less than a second for the freestyle. The Australians countered with former world record-holder Eamon Sullivan as their anchor.
"I was thinking not to blow the lead," Lezak said. "I was really nervous."
Sullivan tried to chase down Lezak and appeared to be gaining as they came to the wall, but Lezak finished in 3 minutes, 29.34 seconds — Phelps' seventh world record in his personal Great Haul of China.
The Aussies took silver in 3:30.04, also under the old world record of 3:30.68 set by the U.S. in Athens four years ago, while Japan held on for the bronze.
Phelps leaned over the blocks, looking to make sure Lezak touched first. Assured the Americans had won, he thrust both index fingers in the air, pumped his right arm and let out a scream. Peirsol also yelled and slapped Phelps in the chest.
Spitz's iconic performance was surpassed by a swimmer fitting of this generation: a 23-year-old from Baltimore who loves hip-hop music, texting with his buddies and wearing his cap backward.
"I don't even know what to feel right now," Phelps said. "There's so much emotion going through my head and so much excitement. I kind of just want to see my mom."
Debbie Phelps was sitting in the stands at the Water Cube, tears streaming down her cheeks, her two daughters by her side. After getting his gold, Phelps quickly found his family, climbing through a horde of photographers to give all three a kiss.
Mom put her arm around his neck and gave him a little extra hug.
Her son sure earned it.
"The Beijing Olympics has witnessed the greatest Olympian of all time — Michael Phelps of the USA," the announcer said as Phelps posed with his teammates.
The Americans still had to wait a couple of tantalizing minutes for the official results to be posted. Finally, it flashed on the board.
Gold medal No. 8.
"Nothing is impossible," Phelps said. "With so many people saying it couldn't be done, all it takes is an imagination, and that's something I learned and something that helped me."
Phelps, who won three relays in Beijing along with five individual races, gave a shout-out to all his teammates for helping him take down Spitz.
"Without the help of my teammates this isn't possible," he said. "I was able to be a part of three relays and we were able to put up a solid team effort and we came together as one unit.
"For the three Olympics I've been a part of, this is by far the closest men's team that we've ever had. I didn't know everybody coming into this Olympics, but I feel going out I know every single person very well. The team that we had is the difference."
Phelps set seven world records and one Olympic record, doing a personal best time in every event.
"It can't be described. We'll never, ever see it again," said Australian distance king Grant Hackett, who came up short in his bid to win a third straight 1,500 freestyle title.
Beforehand, Hackett figured Phelps was likely to win six golds, just as he did in Athens four years ago when the first attempt to beat Spitz's record came up just short.
"Everything lined up for him incredibly," Hackett said. "He's a nice guy, a good bloke, and the last few years I've never seen him change."
Back in Baltimore, some 10,000 fans hung around after an NFL preseason game to watch the relay on the stadium's big screen.
"I think he's going to be a legend forever," Ravens fan Ann Williams said.
Phelps won some races by ridiculously large margins, others with the closest of finishes — most memorably, his seventh gold by one-hundredth of a second over Serbia's Milorad Cavic in the 100 fly. Along the way, he became the winningest Olympian ever and left China with 14 career golds — five more than anyone else with at least one more Olympics to go.
"It's been nothing but an upwards roller-coaster and it's been nothing but fun," Phelps said.
Ditto for Dara Torres, who capped her improbable comeback with two more silver medals, missing gold by one hundredth of a second in the 50 freestyle.
The 41-year-old Torres, a five-time Olympian and the oldest American swimmer ever, also anchored the American women to a runner-up finish in the 400 medley relay. She got silver in all three of her races in Beijing, giving her 12 medals in a remarkable career that began at the 1984 Los Angeles Games — a year before Phelps was even born.
Surely this is the end.
Then again, never count Torres out — she'll only be 45 for the London Games.
"I go home extremely thrilled," said Torres, who also made sure to mention her ailing coach.
Michael Lohberg is battling a rare, potentially fatal blood disease and couldn't travel to Beijing.
"I wouldn't be here without Michael," Torres said.
Germany's Britta Steffen nipped Torres at the wall to complete a sweep of the women's sprint events in Beijing. The middle-aged American smiled, her head dropping back, when she saw a time of 24.07 — just behind Steffen's winning effort of 24.06. The German added to her gold in the 100 free.
Torres received her silver, then hustled back to the locker room to grab her cap and a pair of old-fashioned goggles that were probably older than some of her teammates. She was trailing as she took the anchor leg and couldn't catch Libby Trickett on a frantic sprint to the wall, with China claiming the bronze.
Still, not bad considering she had retired a second time after the 2000 Sydney Games, then got the urge to compete again after having her first child two years ago. Not content swimming in the old-timers' division, she set out to prove that age is only a number.
Consider that point made.
Torres got off to a good start in the 50 and appeared to be leading midway through the race, a frenetic sprint from one end of the pool to the other.
As they came to the wall, Torres and Steffen were stroke for stroke. The German reached out with her left hand and Torres stretched with her right. Steffen's fingertip got there first.
Completing a race for all ages, 16-year-old Australian Cate Campbell earned the bronze in 24.17.
Australia's relay women — Emily Seebohm, Leisel Jones, Jess Schipper and Libby Trickett — took the gold with a world record of 3:52.69. The Americans claimed silver with the second-fastest time in history, 3:53.30, while China took the bronze.
Torres was joined on the U.S. team by Natalie Coughlin, Rebecca Soni and Christine Magnuson. Coughlin received her sixth medal of the games, giving her 11 in her career.
Hackett failed to become the first man to win the same event at three straight Olympics.
The Aussie was upset in swimming's version of the mile by Ous Mellouli, who won Tunisia's first Olympic gold at the pool in 14:40.84.
"It's like 90 yards of a touchdown. It was so close, but I didn't have much of a response," Hackett said. "It's disappointing I didn't win. I have no regrets, it certainly was a close race."
Mellouli held off Hackett in the closing meters of the grueling race, swimming's version of the mile. Hackett earned the silver in 14:41.53, well off his 7-year-old world record of 14:34.56.
"He's never hung on like that in the past," Hackett said of the winner. "He was the better competitor."
Mellouli, who trains in Southern California, was coming off a suspension after testing positive for amphetamines.
Ryan Cochrane of Canada took the bronze in 14:42.69.
After receiving his eighth gold, Phelps received another award from FINA, the sport's governing body, as the best swimmer of the meet.
Make it the best ever.