The array of golds won by Phelps is only half the story, writes Chuck Culpepper
About the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, the earthlings who follow swimming only once every four years - in other words, the overwhelming majority - began to hear tell of a long, strong force barrelling into consciousness.
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He stood 6ft 4ins (1.93 metres) with a noted 6ft 6ins arm span. He hailed from Baltimore, Maryland, in the United States.
He listened to hip-hop music and played video games. He began swimming at age seven and dropped football, baseball and lacrosse from his repertoire before high school. He looked gangly with an appealing hint of goofiness.
At 15 in 2000, Michael Phelps had become the youngest American on the Olympic team in 68 years and had finished fifth in the 200-metre butterfly to lure the attention of swimming sages.
At 18 in 2003, he had reaped four gold medals, two silver medals and five world records at the World Championships in Barcelona.
At 19 in 2004, he arrived in Athens amid banter about equalling or surpassing Mark Spitz, the American swimmer who famously won seven gold medals at Munich 1972.
The banter sounded unwise, potentially enabling a sickly brew of excellence (many medals) and disappointment (falling shy of Spitz). Phelps said amusingly: "My goal is to win one gold medal."
He did so, and then he did so five more times in Athens (six gold and two bronze medals), and then he did so eight more times at Beijing 2008 (all gold medals) until it grew clear that the outlandish promise that accompanied Phelps in 2004 had not committed the sin of vacant hype.
If anything, it had underestimated Phelps by a smidgen, with the reason cloaked at the time even in a sport most decidedly not cloaked. Because as much as his capacity to become the No 1 swimmer in Olympic history owed to all the visible things - strokes, prowess, arm span, movement that almost seemed to trick the eyeball, it relied upon something invisible A ravenous inner motor kept turning up.
In the 100-metre butterfly of Athens 2004, Phelps lagged in fifth place during his 14th race in seven days. He trailed the world-record-holder Ian Crocker by a foreboding half a body length heading for home.
Then, some rare and fathomless desire kicked in to join the body and the talent, and with 20 metres to go Phelps had pulled up to Crocker's shoulder, and in the closing metres Phelps kept narrowing while his coach, Bob Bowman, turned and looked away assuming silver, and in the final stroke Phelps remained behind.
The United States men's swimming coach, Eddie Reese, said: "He was actually behind when he touched first. It was him getting his hand on the wall."
When he thrust that hand forward, it hit four hundredths of a second before Crocker did, and it secured a fourth individual gold medal, matching Spitz's total in that telltale category.
Maybe that foretold two heaving moments from Beijing 2008, but then again maybe not.
In the 200-metre butterfly, for the fourth gold medal of his eight, Phelps defeated Hungary's Laszlo Cseh by 0.67 of a second. It matched neither his gaping wins from some other events nor his photo-finish wins from still others, but it did feature a telling detail.
For the last half of that race, his goggles filled with water, and while that hardly rates unprecedented for competitive swimmers, it did allow for his description of the mayhem and, in turn, a description of his mastery of the mayhem.
"When my goggles did fill up," he said in his press conference, "I knew there was nothing I could do. All I could do was swim.
"I couldn't take them off, I had two caps on, so I couldn't rip them off, I couldn't fix them, I couldn't empty them out, I just had to swim. I tried to see something," but for 100 metres he saw nothing. "I was more or less counting strokes."
With the interior craving for victory and the outer coolness born of knowing how many strokes to count, he counted until he had his fourth gold medal of the eight in Beijing and the 10th of his Olympic haul.
In some sense, of course, all of Athens and all of Beijing fed into one wildly famous race that lifted Phelps into a seven-gold-at-one-Games tie with Spitz.
In that 100-metre butterfly against the formidable Serbian Milorad Cavic, Phelps held seventh place at the 50-metre mark. At the turn he trailed Cavic by 0.62 seconds. By the last 15 metres, of course, that inner fury had flared and, as Cavic said, in one of the more poetic quotations in Olympic lore: "I just kind of saw a shadow in the side of my goggles."
They raged to the wall, finished, tore off their goggles, looked upwards. Phelps let out a roar because he saw his 50.58 and a "1" next to Cavic's 50.59 and a "2". That hundredth of a second meant the Serbian team briefly would protest before relenting. It wrought the careful study of video and photographs.
It meant, with a relay coming, that Phelps would pass Spitz and reach eight golds in one Games, and it prompted one expert to say: "He's the greatest racer who ever walked the planet."
That speaker was, of course, Spitz.
The top 10 Olympic swimmers
1. Michael Phelps, US, 2000, 2004, 2008 – The one who finally surpassed Mark Spitz. Shattered record with six gold medals in 2004 and eight in 2008.
2. Mark Spitz, US, 1968, 1972 – Swimming's first international superstar won seven golds in '72, and set a world record in every event.
3. Vladimir Salnikov, Soviet Union, 1976, 1980, 1988 – A titan of endurance who overcame a 10-second deficit to win the gold in Seoul in 1988.
4. Dawn Fraser, Australia, 1956, 1960, 1964 – The greatest female sprinter became the first to win gold in three straight Olympics (100 metres), might have won a fourth had she tried in 1968 and rode her counter-cultural spirit to icon status to have named for her a daffodil, a rose and an orchid.
5. Ian Thorpe, Australia, 2000, 2004 – His nine medals, five golds and mighty "Thorpedo" image soared even as his moment came in a relay: that jaw-dropping, last-leg rally against the United States in Sydney.
6. Krisztina Egerszegi, Hungary, 1988, 1992, 1996 – The youngest female champion and the only woman with five gold medals in individual events gained note as the best-ever female backstroker.
7. Kieren Perkins, Australia, 1992, 1996, 2000 – This veritable Hercules won two consecutive marathons (the 1,500 metres), tacked on a silver the third time around and won the 1996 gold medal from the hard, hard hinterlands of Lane 8.
8. Janet Evans, United States, 1988, 1992, 1996 – The demanding combination of the golds in the 400m freestyle, the 400m individual medley and the 800m freestyle (twice) conveyed a mighty inner force.
9. Kristin Otto, East Germany, 1988 – She won a historically peerless six gold medals at Seoul, set four world records and maintained she never knew if her national managers had doped her.
10. Alexander Popov, Unified Team/Russia, 1992, 1996, 2000 – Even more than becoming the first man since Johnny Weissmuller to repeat gold medals in two events, the Russian helped glamorise the 50m and 100m sprint races.
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