A modern-day hero

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

ATHENS, Greece – In the long, long history of Greece, the guy (or god) who completed the most impressive to-do list was most certainly Heracles.

He cruised through a 12-labor challenge that included overcoming a nine-headed snake, obtaining the girdle of the fierce Amazon warrior queen and capturing the three-headed watchdog of the underworld, Cerberus, with just his bare hands.

So Michael Phelps and his quest for eight Olympic swimming gold medals is – at least by Greek-myth standards – fairly meager.

Then again, who knows what the 19-year-old is capable of? Send the menacing Nemea lion this way and Phelps might whip it in a single backstroke.

Saturday, Phelps easily took care of his first Olympic challenge, breaking his own world record to win his first gold medal in the 400-meter individual medley in 4:08.26.

By this time next week he hopes to add four individual gold medals, three more in relays and a $1 million bonus from Speedo for breaking Mark Spitz's 32-year seven-gold standard that was previously considered insurmountable.

"I've got one event down and six to go," said Phelps, who has not officially been named to one relay team – which would be event No. 8 – and thus humbly won't mention it.

Rest assured, if Phelps keeps winning golds he will be in eight events. Or as Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, put it, "I don't think he was thinking very clearly [when he said that]."

Who could blame the Maryland native for getting a bit dizzy? For all the world records and world championship titles he already owns, this was his first Olympic medal. He participated in the Sydney Games but came away empty.

So while everyone else wanted to focus on the drive for eight and the looming match-up Monday with Australian star Ian Thorpe – already dubbed the "Duel in the Pool" – Phelps was reveling in the moment on Saturday.

"This is a dream come true for me," he said. "Since I was a little kid every day waking up I wanted to win a gold medal. Everything I ever wanted, and the day is here. This was one of the most emotional swims of my life.

"I am at a loss for words right now."

What a week this guy has coming up. What a life he is living.

He is the bona fide rock star of these Games, so dominant an athlete that even NBA superstars were looking to meet him Friday night in the Olympic village.

With his looks, fame, youth, skill and personality, he will soon be a teen heartthrob.

The guy puts the cool in pool. Saturday he came out bobbing and weaving to Eminem on his iPod.

By the end he was listening to his national anthem, trying to stay composed. "Right now, just thinking about it, you feel tears coming on," he said.

See, he is even in touch with his sensitive side.

Is there anything he can't do?

"I'm not a very good singer," he offered, which is why he mouthed, rather than sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the medal stand on Saturday. But give him time. He ought to have plenty of practice opportunities this week.

As for the swimming there may be no comparison, perhaps no peer here. Phelps' mere presence in a race changes everyone else's goals.

"I can tell you what I was thinking when Michael decided on doing the 400 IM," laughed silver medalist and fellow American Erik Vendt, who finished more than three-and-a-half seconds in Phelps' wake on Saturday. If there was still a wake by then.

Phelps now owns the five fastest times ever in that race.

Still, eight golds is a Herculean effort.

Sunday brings the 4x100 freestyle relay, in which the Americans are favored. Monday is the heavily anticipated 200-meter freestyle where Thorpe – the Aussie star whose world record is two seconds faster than Phelps' personal best – looms.

"It's been his event pretty much the last four years," Phelps said.

Not that he is blinking.

"I wanted to race Thorpe in a freestyle race," Phelps smiled confidently.

What, you think Heracles was nervous when he had to capture that Cretean savage bull?

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