America's Aquaman

Our view: Swimming great Michael Phelps has made his mark

August 17, 2008

Greatest ... athlete ... of ... all ... time.

Imagine. Could anyone deserve such a lofty title? Hyperbole, some might say, bordering on nonsensical, given the vastly different sports, athletes and eras that would have to be weighed. But this year's Olympics has produced a candidate worthy of consideration.

And for those of us who live in the Baltimore area, here is the truly amazing thing: He is one of us.

By winning his eighth gold medal today, Michael Phelps has accomplished more than an Olympic athlete dares dream about. He has not only surpassed Mark Spitz for gold medals in a single Olympics but earned more gold than anyone. He has broken world records like a genuine Olympian toying with mortals.

Sports announcers have likened him to an alien or fish. His physique is so perfectly suited for his sport, his dominance in the water so great, his focus so absolute that there are times when he does, indeed, seem to represent an aquatic turn in human evolution.

But while Mr. Phelps approaches perfection swimming in the water, he does not walk on it. At his core, he is still a pretty ordinary 23-year-old from Rodgers Forge with iPod buds in his can't-miss ears who has lived much of his life swimming laps and working out.

He can be excitable - as his triumphant arm-raised roar demonstrated after the come-from-behind victory in the men's 400-meter freestyle relay. But he is not a showman. Words sometimes elude him. He has even made a young man's mistakes from time to time.

But it is difficult not to cheer for him, to appreciate his supremacy, to be proud that this candidate for greatness is a Baltimorean. He was the gangly 15-year-old Towson High School sophomore who came close to winning a medal in Sydney and ate gargantuan meals at Pete's Grille in Waverly. Four years later, he was the toast of Athens, winner of six gold and two bronze medals.

Now, he has accomplished something more extraordinary still, and we are the ones at a loss for words to place such an achievement in context.

To the great multitude of huzzahs, hoorahs and praise that America's Aquaman will receive in the days ahead, we can add only this: You and your family have made Baltimore proud. We look forward to your return home.

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