BEIJING – Perhaps the men’s 200-meter freestyle was over when Michael Phelps took off his iPod and laid it in a small bucket that holds the swimmers' personal belongings. Or perhaps when he slipped on a swim cap with his name printed on the side, just in case he needed further identification.
Or maybe the race was determined earlier when Phelps, clothed in warmup gear and iPod pumping, arrived at the Water Cube.
Or even earlier than that, when Phelps woke up at 4:30 Tuesday morning, then fell back asleep for another half hour before finally waking for good.
Or Monday night, when he stuffed himself with pizza and pasta.
“A lot of carbs,” Phelps said.
He said this after the 200 freestyle race, which was a race in name only. This was not a race. This was Phelps going for a swim while everyone else paddled for second.
Phelps, of course, did his part faster than any human ever (1 minute, 42.96 seconds) and cruised easily to his third gold medal with five more to be hung on his neck soon enough.
It was speedboat vs. rowboat out there.
It was simply ridiculous.
If Phelps had to do more than eat pizza, wake up, show up and take off his iPod to win the race, then it wasn’t much. Consider the diving start.
“My dive was perfect,” he said.
So perfect he led by half a body length soon after emerging from the water. Not long after that, he had a full-body lead.
“I was watching (and) off the start he had a body length lead at 20 meters,” laughed Natalie Coughlin at the absurdity.
Coughlin later won her own gold, but what Phelps had done was so profound she couldn’t help buzzing about it like everyone else here who must continually remind themselves that the dominance they keep witnessing is real.
“Every time I watch him, I’m more and more in awe,” Coughlin said.
So, the race really was over at the start. Phelps almost certainly slowed up and conserved energy in the unlikely event anyone is capable of challenging him over the next few days. This didn’t stop him from breaking his own world record by nearly a full second.
He was almost two seconds faster than anyone else in a race that was 103 seconds long. It’s possible he could have gotten out of the pool, toweled off and had a green onion and pork dumpling dinner before the others finished.
Phelps pretends that the result is in doubt. He’s respectful that way, even if it must be a big lie. He claims he actually had a strategy to deal with Korea’s Taehwan Park, who gamely finished second.
“I knew going into the last 50 I wanted at least a half a body lead on him,” Phelps said.
Half a body? Phelps had closer to a half an hour lead. And it’s not like Park was doing the doggy paddle. The guy swam fast enough to set an Asian record, and Asia has a lot people in it.
Just not Michael Phelps.
When everyone else finally finished, Phelps waved to his family, got another gold necklace from a pretty girl, heard “The Star-Spangled Banner” again (sans iPod) and threw a towel and gave some flowers to fans.
It was just a regular day. He predicts he’d later receive two massages, text message with friends, take a nap and get some more pizza. This may be getting boring for him.
“My underwater was pretty good during the race,” Phelps acknowledged.
For all we know, he can walk on the stuff. Rest and rigatoni aside, we wouldn’t doubt if he takes time to leap K2 in a single bound, run faster than a bullet train to Tianjin and prove he’s stronger than a dollop of Yu Hsiang sauce.
Tuesday he tied the record for most career Olympic gold medals won with nine, including the six he took home from Athens. He’s 23 years old.
“It’s pretty amazing,” he said.
Wednesday he should get Nos. 10 and 11. Officially he has five more races – two of them relays – before he sweeps gold for the Beijing Games and breaks Mark Spitz’s 36-year-old record of seven firsts in one Olympics.
“I’m almost halfway,” he said.
In truth, he probably just has to show up to make history. Or at most dive in.