8 According to ancient Chinese numerology, the most auspicious number.
8/8/08 The date the Beijing Games officially begin. At 8 p.m.
8 The number of gold medals Michael Phelps hopes to win there.
A story of what it takes to do that, in 8 parts
I. THE SWIMMER
Belmont Plaza is an unlovely pool, a beige hulk squatting on a grimy stretch of Long Beach in Southern California. Behind it, on the Pacific horizon, container ships and oil derricks mar the sunset. Across the parking lot a diner called Chuck's displays a sign declaring itself HOME OF THE WEASEL. In the world of sports venues, this is a long way from Beijing's Water Cube, the Olympic swimming complex designed to look as though it's made of glowing bubbles. And yet on this January night, Belmont has all the glamour. In the chlorinated half-light, Michael Phelps stands behind lane 4 adjusting a pair of black goggles, and he's about to do something amazing. Again.
In case you haven't noticed, Phelps, 23, is the world's greatest swimmer. Describing his career requires superlatives that haven't been invented, so let's stick with numbers: When he was 15, he competed in the Sydney Games, the youngest U.S. male Olympian since 1932. He finished fifth in the 200-meter butterfly—not bad for his first international meet. The next March, still three months from his 16th birthday, he swam the event again at U.S. nationals and broke the world record, making him the youngest male swimmer ever to own one. Twenty-four more world records have followed; Phelps has broken his own 200 butterfly mark five times, once lowering it by an astonishing 1.62 seconds. He won six gold medals at the Athens Games and seven at the 2007 world championships in Melbourne, and now the talk is of eight golds in Beijing. (Not that anybody's counting, but that would be one more than Mark Spitz won in Munich in '72.)
First, though, there is the Toyota Southern California Grand Prix at Belmont Plaza.
Phelps shrugs off his black North Face puffa; removes the hip-hop mainline from his ears. This is a short-course meet, and the pool is only 25 yards long rather than the Olympic size of 50 meters. Short course is intimate and showy; long course is imposing and grand—the traditional distance of world records. As the fastest qualifier, Phelps is introduced last, and as he steps onto the block he snaps his arms across his chest three times, a prerace ritual. Even though he's sporting a new Fu Manchu mustache, the scene is very familiar.