Reflection from Phelps's pool
Michael Phelps, with eight golden reasons to smile, will be in high demand for the foreseeable future. (Afp/Getty Images Photo / Mark Ralston)
BEIJING - Michael Phelps kept every swimsuit, every cap, and every pair of goggles he wore during nine magical days at the Water Cube. Every memory will be savored, too, from goofing off with his US teammates to bowing his head not one, not two, but eight times to receive a gold medal at the Beijing Games.
"There are moments I'll never forget," he said.
Neither will the world.
Phelps, 23, took down the grandest of Olympic records yesterday in the final event at the pool, helping the Americans rally for a world-record win in the 400-meter medley relay. That victory, one more than Mark Spitz managed at the 1972 Munich Games, assured him a place in sports history and a legacy of, well, does he even need one?
Wait, there's more. In his pursuit of Spitz, which actually began four years ago with six gold medals in Athens, Phelps became the winningest Olympian ever with 14 victories, five more than any other athlete.
Even though the Americans have never lost the medley relay at the Olympics, the latest gold was hardly a breeze. When Phelps dived into the water for the butterfly - the third of four legs - the Americans were third behind Japan and Australia.
But Phelps, swimming the same distance and stroke that he used to win his seventh gold a day earlier, powered back to the front on his return lap, passing off to Jason Lezak with the Americans in front. Australia's Eamon Sullivan tried to chase down Lezak and appeared to be gaining as they came to the wall. But Lezak touched in 3 minutes 29.34 seconds - the seventh world record of Phelps's remarkable run.
Afterward, Phelps gathered his three mates in a group huddle, then hugged each one of them separately. He thanked them for their role in the last of his three relay wins. They congratulated him for his remarkable feat.
"It was cool," backstroker Aaron Peirsol said. "We got to be a part of it."
Another member of the relay team, breaststroker Brendan Hansen, was most impressed by the way Phelps detached himself from all the hype once he got away from the pool. He'd set a world record in the morning, then go back to the village and act like nothing had happened.
"I'd be like, 'Do you realize what you're doing?' " Hansen said. "And he'd be like, 'Man, the pizza is good today.' "
But deep down, Phelps was soaking it all in - the glory and the minutiae. He had all the medals hanging in his room. By the end of the Games, Hansen quipped, they resembled a wind chime.
As much as he relished the actual races, what he really seemed to treasure most were those behind-the-scenes moments. Unlike Spitz, who was viewed as aloof and even arrogant by his fellow swimmers, Phelps got along with all his teammates, even though they all knew he was in a league of his own.
He hung out with them during his down time in the Athletes' Village, playing cards and the world-conquering game Risk. He made a point to engage the Olympic rookies he didn't know very well. He did what lots of other 23-year-olds do - play hip-hop music and text his buddies.
"I just wanted to make sure I took every single moment in and every single swim in, every single moment with my teammates, so I would remember them," Phelps said. "I don't want to forget anything that happened."
No one else does, either.
Everyone at the pool was mesmerized by Phelps, even if they were competing for another country.
"I couldn't care less about my swims," said Australia's Leisel Jones, who won two gold medals. "To swim in the same era as him has been awesome."
Spitz's record had stood since the Nixon administration. Australian coach Alan Thompson figures it might take even longer for someone to take down the new mark.
"We've been talking about Mark Spitz for 36 years now," Thompson said. "I don't know if I'm going to be alive when they stop talking about this bloke. You wonder if we are going to see someone as good as this again."
No one will see Phelps in a LZR Racer again anytime soon. He'll take a nice, long break from swimming. The early morning wake-up calls, the grueling weight sessions, the endless laps in the pool - all are on hold for now.
Besides, he has to pack. Phelps will be moving back to Baltimore after spending the last four years in Michigan, where he grew into a man and learned to be on his own for the first time.
"I just want to lay in my own bed for five minutes at least and just relax," Phelps said. "One of the things I'm really looking forward to is getting back to Baltimore."