PENRITH, Australia - In a morning race at career's twilight, Steve Redgrave of Britain joined the Olympic immortals today.
The greatest rower of them all won his fifth gold medal in consecutive Summer Games, leading Britain's coxless four crew to a dramatic triumph in a breathless 2,000-meter race on a cool, clear lake.
When it ended, with the British beating the Italians by less than a half-second, Redgrave was hunched over, gasping for breath, his thinning blond hair and slight paunch vivid reminders that the 38-year-old father of three is an old man with an oar.
Redgrave's longtime racing partner, Matthew Pinsent, climbed from his seat at the front of the shell and reached for his friend and mentor before slipping into the water.
Finally, Redgrave caught his breath and told his jubilant teammates: "Remember these six minutes for the rest of your life."
The victory was a stunning affirmation of Redgrave's grit and greatness. It was also the stuff of Olympic legend. He has won five times in three different boats, claiming gold for the first time in Los Angeles in 1984. Only Hungarian fencer Aladar Gerevich has won more consecutive golds, claiming six in Olympics in a career that stretched from the 1930s to after World War II.
"He is one of the most important athletes in the history of the Olympic Games," International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch said before awarding the rower a special gold pin to mark his accomplishments. "He is in the first flight."
Redgrave received his medal from Britain's Princess Anne, who also gave golds to Pinsent, Tim Foster and James Cracknell.
"It's certainly a special thing," Redgrave said. "It has been four years of hard work. I had a good feeling all week and I knew it was going to go well. It was close, but that doesn't matter. Second-best is not good enough. It's who crosses the line first."
Redgrave's career is emblematic of the Olympics for both the traditional sport he pursues and the way he pursues it - with dogged determination.
"He is the ultimate Olympian," Pinsent said. "He is the best one Britain has ever produced. It is amazing what he has done. He is an inspiration to us."
A plasterer's son from Marlow who is dyslexic, Redgrave left school at 16 to row full-time. Tirelessly, he built up his glittering career, which seemed to reach its zenith in Atlanta in 1996, when he and Pinsent won in the coxless pair.
As he huffed and puffed at the end of that race, Redgrave said, "Anyone who sees me go anywhere near a boat again, ever, you've got my permission to shoot me."
But retirement was brief. Not only did he battle age, he also struggled with diabetes. Taking up to six insulin injections a day, Redgrave continued his career and the punishing four-hour daily workouts.
His fifth gold was no sure thing. The British were beaten into fourth place two months ago in a key race in Switzerland, and there were whispers that he was past his prime. But today, the rower gave everything he had in a race that left 30,000 spectators screaming.
Most came to cheer Redgrave, including a father of a New Zealand rower who Redgrave said told him: "You're racing against my son, but I still want you to win."
The British went out to a lead and dared the Italians to follow. In the closing moments, Italy drew within an oar of the lead, but Britain unleashed a punishing 40-stroke-a-minute pace. Australia was third.
"So many people wanted us to win, but you had to get that out of your mind," Redgrave said. "It was all over by the first 200 meters. We locked into a comfortable level and nobody passes us, or very rarely."
Will he be back again?
"This should be my last Olympics," he said. "But you never know. We'll see in four years time."