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There went Michael Phelps again, virtually alone in the water, churning like a Waring blender, going after one last goal--a $5 blue-and-white inflatable kids' raft.
"Michael!" his mother hollered. "Let it go!"
This wasn't a pool. This was the Aegean Sea, off the coast of Greece, off a chartered yacht, on Monday, three days after his last Olympic event. A friend had left a little dinghy in the water, 100 meters off the stern. So Phelps, a little dingy himself, hollered, "I'll get it!" and tore off like an overcaffeinated tuna.
Here's a guy who'd just swam 17 Olympic races in seven days, logged 70,000 meters for the week (including warmups and warmdowns), which is 43.4 miles, which is about from Athens to the island of Hydra, and here he was, with his first week off from swimming since he was two, peeling off after a toy like it was the Lindbergh baby.
What are you gonna do? Call him Aqualung. He swims for the same reason Paris Hilton shops. He was born to it. He's all torso. He's 6'4" yet wears 32-length pants, which makes him look like a man in a fun-house mirror. He's only 195 pounds and most of that is ears and size14 feet, the bottoms of which were all most of his opponents saw at these Games.
Do you realize that last Saturday night, if he'd been a country, Phelps would have been tied with France for sixth-most gold medals, just behind Germany? He won six golds and two bronzes--the most medals ever in one Olympics if you don't count Russian gymnast Alexander Dityatin, who won eight at the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games, beating three Latvians and a trained goat.
But does Phelps's Pheat compare with Spitz's Seven? Hell, no.
What Phelps did was harder.
Mark Spitz swam only 13 times. He had three bunny relays to Phelps's tougher two. When Spitz won, he had about three countries to worry about, one of which was East Germany, whose men weren't even as fast (or as hairy) as the East German women. Spitz's era to Phelps's era is like peach basket to NBA. Yet this gangly 19-year-old transcended not only his era but also his sport.
Seventeen races in seven days? Do you know how epic that is? It's not just the races. He had to be at every qualifier, heat, dope test, awards ceremony and team meeting. One night he won the 200 IM and was standing on the podium with nine minutes to go until his first 100-butterfly heat. "The whole time on the podium," said Phelps, "I'm thinking, How fast can I go in the fly?"