BEIJING?Eight gold medals in eight events. Eight Olympic and seven world swimming records. Fourteen victories in two Summer Games.
Beat that and be a god in Olympia?that place in ancient Greece where the Olympics were first played in 776 B.C. to honor God of Thunder Zeus and where gods?according to myth?competed against each other in foot race, boxing and archery.
Legend does not say the gods also raced each other in swimming.
The grandest of Olympic champions, Michael Phelps, churned his way to immortality on Sunday, nailing an unprecedented eight consecutive gold after powering the United States to victory in the 4x100-meter medley relay at the Water Cube here.
It was billed as a team relay race, but it was only about one man.
?Everything was accomplished,? Phelps said. ?Doing all best times, winning every race.?
It was a feat that many believed couldn?t be done, and he did it in emphatic style.
?The greatest thing is proving nothing is impossible,? Phelps said. ?So many people said it couldn?t be done, but all it takes is an imagination. That is something I have learned.?
Along the way to surpassing Mark Spitz?s 1972 record of seven gold at one Games, Phelps scaled the summit of Olympic achievement, matching and then surging past the record nine career gold medals of Games icons Spitz, Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi, US sprinter Carl Lewis and Soviet gymnast Larysa Latynina.
But the dream, Phelps said, wasn?t just about individual glory, but about changing the face of swimming forever.
?From here, it is a continuation with my goal of raising the sport of swimming as high as I can in the US,? he said.
With the Americans trailing after two legs in Sunday?s race, the notoriously slow-starting Phelps swept his team into the lead with a world-record split in the butterfly leg and then watched teammate Jason Lezak anchor the United States to victory, crowning Phelps as the greatest Olympic athlete ever.
When Phelps dived into the water for the butterfly?the third of four legs?the Americans were behind Japan and Australia.
But Phelps, swimming the same distance and with galloping butterfly strokes that he used to win his seventh gold a day earlier, powered to the front on his return lap, passing off to Lezak with the Americans in front.
Australia?s Eamon Sullivan tried to chase Lezak down and appeared to be gaining as they came to the wall. But Lezak touched in 3 minutes, 29.34 seconds?Phelps? seventh world record in his personal Great Haul of China.
The Aussies took silver in 3:30.04, also under the old world record, while Japan held on for the bronze.
Mom, sis crying
?This is a dream come true,? said Phelps, who received a special commendation from the International Olympic Committee at the awards ceremony of the Beijing Olympics? last swimming event.
?I?ve dreamed of a lot of things and written down a lot of goals. And this one was the biggest one I had ever written down. You can imagine anything, to work through having ups and having downs, to accomplish everything you have ever dreamed of?it feels good.?
The tip of his tongue between his trembling lips and his eyes moist from all the drama of the past eight days, the 23-year-old Phelps tried to sing the Star Spangled Banner but hardly could. He just stood there with teammates Lezak, backstroker Aaron Peirsol, and breaststroker Brendan Hansen, his toothy smile only intermittently showing.
?I guess, what I?ve done was just sinking in,? Phelps said at a news conference. ?I just saw mom for one minute, we just hugged and she started crying. And then my sister started crying. I?m glad I?ve been able to accomplish everything I?ve wanted.?
Massive arm span
For the record, Phelps won the gold in the 400m individual medley, 200m freestyle, 200m butterfly, 200m individual medley and 100m butterfly and was part of the victorious US quartet in the 4x100m freestyle, 4x200m freestyle and 4x100m medley relay.
Underscoring his greatness, Phelps? victories came in world-record clockings, except in his next-to-last race on Saturday, the 100m butterfly, where he dug out one of the most amazing comebacks in Olympic history to pip the big Serbian Milorad Cavic by the skin of his teeth?one hundredth of a second. Phelps, however, broke the Olympic record in the event.
Phelps, who has a massive arm span of 201 centimeters, about 7 cm greater than his height, bagged six gold medals in the 2004 Athens Games.
Phelps finally showed signs of tiring from his gruelling schedule. ?It?s time to take a little vacation,? he said.
From the moment he walked into the swimming pool at the head of the US team, all eyes were fixed on Phelps and his quest for history.
For years, no one believed that Spitz?s seven gold haul from 1972 could be overtaken. On Sunday, no one believed that Phelps would not make history by going one better.
Phelps? pre-race ritual is about as well honed as his physique and swimming technique.
The white dressing gown, making him look like a boxer heading for the ring, the furrowed concentration and intense stare as he listens to hip-hop on his headphones.
Then the robe comes off, revealing a gigantic, triangular torso tapering down to tight hips and legs that appear positively puny by comparison with his bull-like upper body.
He stretches first one leg, then the other, and shakes his enormous wingspan, which gives him extra pull when he plows through the water.
Normally he wipes down his starting block.
Prior to Sunday?s final, he had raced 16 times.
Few if any athletes in the world could maintain that work load, and Sunday again required something special from the man from Baltimore, who had yelled and screamed at his first swimming lesson because he did not want to get his face wet.
More like a kid
When the race ended, Phelps patted breaststroker Hansen on the head and threw his arms in the air after Lezak finished, though the Americans still had to wait a couple of tantalizing minutes for the official results to be posted.
Finally, it flashed on the board.
Gold medal No. 8.
A beaming Phelps slapped hands with his teammates and thrust his arms toward the Water Cube roof. The winning swimmers locked arms as if they were in a football huddle about to break for a play.
Phelps looked more like a high school kid than a superhuman as he celebrated his record, a goofy grin stuck on his face.
?Greatest of all time?
Phelps was still smiling when he arrived for the medal ceremony, immediately placing a large foot on the podium as if he could not wait for that eighth gold he has cherished for so long.
Up to his right, tears welled in his mother?s eyes and one of sisters buried her face in her hands as she cried for joy.
?The Beijing Olympics has witnessed the greatest Olympian of all time?Michael Phelps of the USA,? the announcer said as Phelps posed on the deck with his teammates, yet another gold around his neck.
Afterward, he climbed through hordes of photographers to hug his family and then made his way back to the changing room, not even glancing back at the pool where he had rewritten history.
Perhaps he was already thinking about the next race.
?He is staggering?
Sport is full of hyperbole. The terms ?historic,? ?heroic? or ?legendary? become almost banal, but no one in the crowd could deny on Sunday they had witnessed something remarkable.
?It is astounding. His individual records will be broken, but who can say if his eight gold medals will ever be beaten,? said Australia?s Jenny Turral, a former swimmer whose own world record in the 1,500 meters stood for several years.
As a one-time athlete, Turral knows how hard it is to win one event, let alone eight.
?I hate the word freak, but he is in a world of his own. He is staggering,? she said.
Phelps acknowledged the help he got from his teammates.
?Without (their) help, this isn?t possible,? he said. ?I was able to be a part of three relays and we were able to put up a solid team effort and we came together as one unit.
?For the three Olympics I?ve been a part of, this is by far the closest men?s team that we?ve ever had. I didn?t know everybody coming into this Olympics, but I feel going out I know every single person very well. The team that we had is the difference.?
16 medals in all
At 23, Phelps has set a record for the total number of medals won by a male Olympian with 16.
Russian gymnast Nikolai Andrianov with 15?seven gold, five silver and three bronze in 1972, 1976 and 1980?had held the mark.
Only Latynina?s 18 career medals exceed Phelps? total.
?He may be human but he?s from a different planet,? Russia?s Alexander Sukhorukov said of Phelps. ?A different galaxy.? With reports from Reuters, AP, AFP and Inquirer Research