August 16, 2008
Michael Phelps capped the greatest Olympic performance in history this morning in Beijing, winning an eighth gold medal in a decisive American victory in the 4x100-meter medley relay. With the eighth gold, the 23-year old American eclipses Mark Spitz's record of seven set at the 1972 Munich Games.
It looked dicey until Phelps turned after his first 50 fly but, just as last night, Phelps left the field in his wake on the second. Jason Lezak held off world record holder Eamon Sullivan on the last 100.
Now that Phelps has delivered on the massive hype that accompanied his quest for history, it will be easy to overlook how remarkable his accomplishment was. Don't fall into that trap. Phelps swam 17 races in three disciplines at three different distances. He bested specialists who focused all their training toward one event. It's the most remarkable achievement in Olympic history. History will judge where Phelps belongs in the all-time athletic pantheon, but at this point it's not ridiculous to mention him in the same breath as Ruth, MJ and Tiger.
Also, important; don't forget about Jason Lezak. Without his remarkable anchor leg in the 4x100 freestyle relay -- the best swim I've ever seen -- and his excellent anchoring tonight, we'd be talking about Phelps having another stellar, but relatively disappointing, meet.
The biggest accomplishment for Phelps might not be the eight golds, or the seven world records or the $1 million bonus from Speedo. The greatest feat for Phelps was that, for one week, he turned everyone in America into a swim fan. People who couldn't tell you the breaststroke from the butterfly were hanging on each of his races, cheering on Phelps like they were lifelong fans.
Such is the nature of the Olympics, I suppose; people become fans of a sport that they won't care about again for another four years. But Phelps was different. He became a national phenomenon. He became a part of the conversation. America might not care about swimming until the next Olympics, but they won't soon forget Michael Phelps.