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Originally published Tuesday, August 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM


Steve Kelley

Michael Phelps redefining Olympic greatness

As U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps continues his historic journey toward eight gold medals in the Beijing Olympic Games, his remarkable talent and focus inspires awe even in his competitors.

Seattle Times staff columnist

BEIJING — Someone back home asked me what it was like to watch Michael Phelps swim. What about him lets you know that you are watching greatness?

I didn't have a good answer.

I mean, he's seemingly always the guy in the middle lane and he's always the guy in the lead. In fact, it was stunning, and irrelevant, seeing him finish third in the 200-meter freestyle heat Monday morning.

He was conserving energy for the manic men's 400 freestyle relay the United States would win an hour later. Still, we've grown accustomed to watching him win.

He is one of the most dependable winners ever in sports.

He is UCLA basketball under John Wooden. He is the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan. He is a one-man Dream Team.

And he won again here Tuesday.

Phelps broke his world record in the 200 freestyle, swimming 1 minute, 42.96 seconds. And he tied the Olympic record for most gold medals won by an athlete. Tied, among others, Mark Spitz and Carl Lewis.

"To be tied for the most Olympic gold medals is pretty amazing," he said. "I mean, the Olympics have been around for a long time. It's definitely an honor. I spent some time with Carl Lewis and exchanged some words here and there with Spitz, so that's pretty amazing."

As his name was introduced, Phelps slowly took off his white robe. Seconds before the race, he bent at the waist and flapped his arms eagle-like three times, his trademark. Then he beat his seven competitors.

Beat them easily.

Starting from Lane No. 6, because of the previously mentioned, energy-conserving swim the day before, Phelps broke his world record, beat it by almost a second.


What's it like to watch him? It's a little like watching Tiger Woods play golf. He is that focused, that removed from everyone else.

"He really keeps himself to himself," said eighth-place finisher Robbie Renwick of England. "Everyone knows not to mess with him.

"But you know what, it's pretty cool to say that I was in that race. It's not every day you say you get to swim in an Olympics final, and then to add that you swam against Michael Phelps."

Greatness was predicted for Phelps when, as a 15-year-old, he finished fifth in the 200 butterfly at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

But this?

In a sport where the difference between winner and loser is defined in hundredths of a second, he has redefined what a winner is. He's more than a winner. He's a landslide on water.

"When I watch him I see a lot of natural talent, obviously," said South Africa's Jean Basson, who finished fourth. "But he also has amazing focus. Watching him warm up. He has such amazing attention to detail. He knows exactly what he's going to do and how he's going to do it. And he knows that before every race.

"And when he gets challenged, he knows how to deviate from that plan. It seems like he can always find something else in his tank and get home faster than everyone else."

Phelps won six golds four years ago in Athens. He has three on his swim toward eight inside the Water Cube, along with three new world records.

Supposedly, the freestyle relay the U.S. won on the strength of 32-year-old Jason Lezak's record-breaking anchor leg — Lezak looked as if he would have swum through the wall to win — was Phelps' most extreme gold-medal challenge.

Now it's just a matter of whether his body and his mind can withstand the stress of all these days and all these races. (Fifty minutes after winning Tuesday's 200 free, Phelps qualified for the 200 butterfly final.)

"It's just a honor just to be swimming with that guy, to be a part of his history," Basson said. "He's doing some unbelievable things out there, making even the best swimmers in the world look at him in awe.

"To swim in a race where he went that fast? Just to be a part of that is really amazing. I mean, I've never seen an athlete like him before."

It isn't just that Phelps wins all of this gold. It's that he does it in such a variety of races. From freestyle, to breaststroke, to butterfly.

It's like a pitcher with a 100 mph fastball also being able to throw the game's best knuckleball. Even better, it is like a gold-medal decathlete also placing first in maybe eight of his 10 disciplines.

Phelps owns the inside lanes. He owns the pool. And, at 23, he says he isn't retiring after these Olympics.

So how does anyone beat him?

"You have to improve on areas of your race that are his strength, like turns," Basson said. "I mean, maybe your swim can be as fast as his, but if he gets a body length on you in the turns, it's not going to matter.

"I know a lot of people are trying hard to find ways to beat him. But it doesn't look like it's working."

Not here. Not inside the Water Cube, where Michael Phelps is redefining Olympic greatness.

Steve Kelley: Read his blog from Beijing at

Golden group
Michael Phelps tied four other athletes by winning his ninth Olympic gold medal:
Athlete Nation Sport Years
Michael Phelps USA Swimming 2004-2008*
Carl Lewis USA Track and field 1984-1996
Mark Spitz USA Swimming 1968-1972
Larisa Latynina USSR Gymnastics 1956-1964
Paavo Nurmi Finland Track and field 1920-1928
* Also competed in 2000 Olympics at age 15.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation. | 206-464-2176

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