- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
MICHAEL PHELPS could see it clearly, even from 50 meters away. On the final lap of the men's 4 × 100 freestyle relay the U.S. was in second place, almost a body length behind France. As the French anchor, Alain Bernard, powered off the turn and headed for the finish, a grand Gallic victory seemed inevitable. Bernard, after all, is a rocket of a guy, a 6'5" 25-year-old who broke the 100 freestyle world record twice last spring and whose nickname is the Horse. Though the American anchor, three-time Olympian and veteran sprinter Jason Lezak, 32, is no couch potato himself, to overtake Bernard he would have to temporarily become superhuman. It was a lot to ask.
For Phelps, there was nothing to do but watch as his dream of eight gold medals circled the drain on Monday morning at the Water Cube. As the relay lead he'd hit the wall second, but it had taken a world record to beat him, Australia's Eamon Sullivan touching first in 47.24. Phelps's split of 47.51 was a mere one one-hundredth of a second over Bernard's world record heading into the Games; only a handful of men have ever broken 48 seconds—and all but one of them was swimming in this race. The French team was strong, it was deep and, in the view of many, it was favored. Used to be, at the Olympics the Americans won this relay all the time. But then in Sydney in 2000 they were beaten by the Australians and had to settle for silver, and in Athens four years later, a bronze, the result of a drubbing by South Africa and being touched out by the Netherlands. Now it looked as though they'd have to wait another four years to regain this crown and that Phelps would be heading back to Baltimore with at least one medal that was the wrong color.
But then Lezak did something we all dream of seeing when we watch the Olympic Games: He pulled off a miracle. He regained the lost ground, pulling even with Bernard at the 95-meter mark, and then he had a perfect finish, his hand tripping the timer without the slightest deceleration. Still, it was impossible to call, and for a split second in the adrenaline haze no one knew what had happened. Phelps, bent over the block, screaming like a banshee, looked up at the clock. His teammates Garrett Weber-Gale and Cullen Jones did the same. Every pair of eyes in the stadium took it in: The Americans had beaten the French by .08 of a second.
And then Phelps leaned back and roared, all clenched fists and tendons; all the joy and all the pain and all the relief distilled into one epic moment. Lezak had swum the fastest split in history, 46.06 seconds, almost seven-tenths faster than that of Bernard. The Americans had gouged four seconds out of the world record, lowering it from 3:12.23 to 3:08.24.
This was not just fast; this was a new definition of fast. And for swimming, the stakes have never been higher.
THESE ARE the nine days that Michael Phelps has been waiting for, planning for, training for; the Games in which he will likely become the most decorated Olympian in history. And in the weeks leading up to Beijing, the world had been waiting to watch it happen.
At 6:30 on Saturday evening the competition began: 894 swimmers from 162 countries, a global convention of V-shaped backs. There were battalions of coaches and squadrons of officials; legions of blue-shirted volunteers and a quartet of dancing mascots, all slipping around on the white-tile deck. There was a pair of petite Chinese girls perched side by side on lifeguard chairs ready to spring to the rescue, should it come to that. Every camera angle was manned, every press seat occupied. Some 11,000 people filled the stands as the heats of the men's 400-meter individual medley, the Games' first swimming event, hit the water.
In this first of the 17 races that he'll swim at these Games, Phelps set an Olympic record of 4.07.82. But that was only a teaser, an amuse-bouche of sport—more than 2.5 seconds slower than his world record of 4.05.25. During the next morning's finals Phelps shattered both, in a blazing 4.03.84.
Watching Phelps on the medal podium waving to his mother and President Bush, alternately moved to tears, joking with bronze medalist and close friend Ryan Lochte and laughing when the national anthem was suddenly cut short (apparently we are no longer the home of the brave), you'd never have known that he'd just put up the fastest time in history in a race that swimmers consider the ultimate in gut-churning pain. (Phelps himself admits that "the last 50 of a 400 IM, I'm thinking, Please, God, let me get to this wall.") Certainly you wouldn't guess that before the race Phelps had felt crummy, beset by what he called "cold chills." Rather, he looked invigorated. And if in the next day's 200 freestyle preliminaries he cruised through to the semifinals nearly three seconds off his world-record time, then ended those semis in uncharacteristic fourth place a day later, no one was really that concerned. For Michael Phelps, the real business is done in the finals.
THOUGH PHELPS tends to make winning look easy, even a single gold medal performance requires any number of stars to align. Take the process of tapering, of physically preparing not only to be able to win against the world's best but also to do it at exactly the right moment, at an event that occurs once every four years. This, as one might imagine, is diabolically complicated. "When you taper swimmers for a meet, it's like getting a haircut," says Bob Bowman, Phelps's coach of 12 years. "You never know if it's any good until it's too late." The competitor needs to be deeply rested but not so much that fitness is lost; loose, but with all of his edge. And there's no one-size-fits-all method: Everyone peaks differently. Phelps's ideal race preparation, for instance, might destroy another swimmer.