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"Go ahead," whispered a USA Swimming official, watching the exchange from the stands. "Poke the tiger with the stick."
"It's unattainable for me, and it's unattainable for anyone."
"I have said before that I don't think he can do the eight, and I still believe that."
I'VE NEVER really had a real vacation," Phelps says, considering his post-Beijing plans. "To just be on my own schedule, not have any commitments, do what I want to do, go where I want to go. You know, like, be free." In other words, after 12 years of grueling training, it's time for the flip side: "I'm going to sit on the beach and do nothing. I'm sleeping in. I'm putting on weight. And I'm not going to care."
Even at rest, however, Phelps's life won't be sedentary. He and Bowman had a deal: Until Aug. 17, 2008, Phelps would stick to the pool. (Admittedly less adept on land, he'd broken his right wrist last October while getting into a car.) After that date: "I'm going to do new things. I'm going to try snowboarding. I want to try golf. I'm just going to experiment." These are the kinds of plans that in the past would have struck fear into Bowman, whose sense of control is so finely tuned that a year before the 2004 Olympic trials, he had Phelps undergo a preemptive extraction of his wisdom teeth. But unless Phelps breaks a femur or two on the back nine, he'll be back in the water soon enough—with a new sheet of goals that'll likely include adding to his gold-medal collection in 2012. "I think in many ways his personality is addictive," Bowman says. "He's addicted to the excitement. It's like any addiction: You have to have more, you have to have higher."
In the end the math is so pretty. At 23, Michael Phelps owns 16 Olympic medals, 14 of which are gold. But even though swimming (like all sports) is about counting—who won, who lost and by how much; how fast they went and how many strokes they took; how many medals they snagged and what color they were—there is something unquantifiable here. Something bigger. Really, what Phelps has done is disrupt the idea of can't. This hip-hop-listening, video-gaming pool shark; this likable guy with the generous ears who manages to seem both invincible and humble at the same time ("I'm not unbeatable. No one is unbeatable) he has elevated us.
The iconic image of these Games will always be the swimmer wearing his eight-piece gold necklace, but another picture also remains: Thirty minutes before the 100 butterfly final Chinese television's raw feed had panned onto Phelps, sitting in the back row of the Ready Room. With its rows of white folding chairs, this room invites all the calm of a tightly packed bus en route to a mental institution. Phelps had his hands clasped on his knees, and you could see that he was breathing rhythmically, in and out, looking up and down, his eyes serious, his legs tapping with energy. In the front row the finalists in the women's 200 backstroke joked with one another and fussed with their caps and goggles, but in the back of the room Phelps was alone; early for his 16th appearance and once again left to consider the verdict that the morning would, or would not, deliver.