Phelps' clear destiny

After another world record in the 200 freestyle, these 8 Olympic gold medals appear his to lose

Beijing 2008

August 12, 2008|By RICK MAESE

BEIJING - It's time we overhauled our language as it concerns Michael Phelps. We can no longer talk about his quest. It's not a chase, it's not a dream, and it's not simply a goal either.

Eight gold medals at the Olympics? Let's just start calling it what it is: Phelps' destiny.

There's no denying it now: His path is paved in gold. He is going to do it. Phelps of Rodgers Forge is going to leave here with eight golds.

He picked up his third of these Games earlier today, winning the 200-meter freestyle in impressive fashion, breaking his own world record by nearly a second and beating the field by so much that he was practically dried off before any of the other swimmers hit the wall.

While Phelps is still five golds short of surpassing Mark Spitz's mark of seven in Munich in 1972 and still three short of matching his own total from the 2004 Olympics, Phelps has notched a couple of important achievements that eluded him in Athens, making his record-breaking gold medal haul here all but certain.

Making such a proclamation would have been premature before yesterday's 400-meter relay. If you think back on Phelps' bid for eight golds in 2004, the chase unraveled early in the Games. In Athens, Phelps took home six gold medals and two bronze.

With today's win in the 200 free, Phelps has come out of the water golden in both events he lost in Greece. With today's win he joined Spitz, American track star Carl Lewis, Soviet gymnast Larysa Latynina and Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi for the most gold medals in Olympic history.

The fact that he was able to improve in both races over the course of four years speaks volumes about Phelps as a competitor and also to the depth of talent on the American team.

Losing a race - any race - haunts Phelps. A tenth of a second could sting for years. So it should be no surprise that as Phelps left Athens, he specifically set out to exorcise the demons that kept him from gold four years ago.

The 200-meter freestyle was the only individual event that Phelps lost in Athens, finishing behind Australia's Ian Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands in what is commonly referred to as the "Race of the Century."

Though Thorpe has retired, it's still incredible how thoroughly Phelps now dominates that race. He first broke the record at last year's world championships in Australia, and in the race today, he might as well have been the only one in the pool. After the first turn, he was nearly a full body length ahead of the field.

Racing himself

Phelps isn't racing against other competitors here in Beijing; he's racing against himself, against his previous times. In fact, in three races, Phelps has set three world records here, twice breaking his own mark.

The biggest obstacle in his way actually came a day earlier, in the 400-meter freestyle relay. In Athens, Phelps' run for eight gold medals died quickly. After setting a world record on the first day, the American relay team took bronze on Day 2.

Yesterday, it felt like deja vu through 300 meters of the relay, with the Americans lagging behind. And through 350 meters. And through 375 meters. Fortunately for Phelps and any hopes of Olympic perfection, he has incredible teammates on his side. And fortunately for the Americans, the French are such reliable chokers you'd think they had something permanently lodged in their throats. And fortunately for Jason Lezak, he was prepared for the race of his life.

Lasting memories

Swimming the anchor leg, Lezak smelled blood in the water and hunted down world record-holder Alain Bernard, giving the Americans a remarkable and unforgettable win. It produced images and memories that will last for many years. The sight of Phelps on the pool deck, screaming to the Olympic gods with veins and muscles straining against his skin, was beautiful on many levels. Phelps, programmed for so long to simply swim and hawk Speedo, had come unplugged. For a few moments, we saw him for what he really is: a competitor with an unmatched intensity, but also a young man, overcome with raw, unbridled joy.

Phelps would never acknowledge this, but that might prove to be the final serious test he will face at these Games. Don't expect him to find any challenger that pushes him in the individual events quite like the French relay team, smack-talking, funny-pants-wearing swimmers who had gold for 398 meters and are now stuck with silver for the rest of their lives.

Why he'll win

In looking ahead, you don't want to take for granted guys like Ian Crocker or Ryan Lochte, but every race left is Phelps' race to lose. Crocker is the world record-holder in the 100-meter butterfly, but he hasn't beaten Phelps in a big meet since 2005. And Lochte is doomed to living a life an eyelash behind Phelps; it doesn't help that Friday, when he and Phelps will duel in the 200 individual medley, Lochte has two races to worry about.

And though the Americans were slight underdogs in their first relay yesterday, the two remaining relays shouldn't be nearly as difficult.

You can just feel it around the pool. There's a special energy that glows around Phelps, an undeniable sense of destiny and fate emanating from him.

In fact, it feels as if Phelps has already won eight gold medals. And if other swimmers at these Games want one of them, they're going to have to take it from him.

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