For 47 out of every 48 months, swimming goes more or less unnoticed—more like the movement of a silent submarine than the fierce splashing of its athletes, the sport quietly lurks just out of the corner of the public eye. Swimming’s World Championships are held biannually, but they typically warrant nothing more in the U.S. than a throwaway line, at most, on the ever-running SportsCenter ticker.
For that one remaining month, though, swimming takes center stage, men’s basketball its only real rival in terms of Olympic popularity. It’s a strange phenomenon, a once-in-a-blue-moon meteoric rise to prominence followed by a quick subsequent decline back into hibernation. But for 2008 in Beijing, at least, there’s a crystal-clear method to the madness: it goes by the name of Michael Phelps.
Phelps’ standing as the world’s best may no longer be as untouchable as it was back then, with fellow American Ryan Lochte having made a strong claim over the last few years to have overtaken that title. Nonetheless, in swimming, the only real, bona fide proving ground is the Olympics.
And four years ago, Phelps was the undisputed king.
Going into the Beijing Games, the Baltimore native had set the bar higher than anyone in the sport had before him, drawing up an itinerary unprecedented in its audacity. The goal was to break the record of another American, Mark Spitz, who had amassed the world’s highest gold-medal total in a single Olympics, with seven back in 1972. Phelps wanted eight.
His quest started out easily enough, as he topped Hungarian László Cseh in the first finals heat of the Games, winning the 400m individual medley by over two seconds—a swimming eternity. The next medal he had set his sights on was the 4x100m freestyle relay; in sharp contrast to the first, this one would come right down to the wire. What must’ve made it even tougher for Phelps was the fact that the end result wasn’t ultimately in his hands.
Veteran Jason Lezak had been agreed upon as the anchor leg for the relay, with Phelps leading off, followed by Garrett Weber-Gale and Cullen Jones. Weber-Gale gave the American team its first lead during his 100 meters, but Jones promptly relinquished it to France, giving Alain Bernard such a head start on Lezak that the announcers actually wrote off the Americans over halfway into the final leg.
Lezak, as it turns out, didn’t exactly agree with their analysis. Craftily riding off of the waves created by Bernard in the next lane, he mounted a comeback in the last 25 meters that was nothing short of superhuman. He touched the wall eight-hundredths of a second before the Frenchman, winning the gold in stunning fashion and ensuring that Phelps’ run didn’t end before it got off the ground.
The next day brought the finals of the 200 free, and Phelps was part of a third world record in as many days as he won comfortably in a time of 1:42.96. The race itself may not have been anything out of the ordinary, but the victory marked his ninth career gold medal, making Phelps only the fifth Olympian to record such an elusive feat.
He wouldn’t stop there, of course, beating Cseh a second time in the 200 fly (despite having water in his goggles for nearly the entire race) before once again batting first and capturing gold in the 4×200 freestyle relay.
Oh yeah, and that second race (in which the world record was absolutely annihilated) took place under an hour after Phelps’ first. Never complain about a doubleheader again, baseball players.
Poor Cseh was once again a Phelps victim two days later to further cement his historical place in swimming lore, albeit for all the wrong reasons. The 200m IM had seen yet another world record sunk in the American’s wake. But while the last four golds had come without much issue, that run was about to come to an end.
Enter Michael Čavić, California-born and -raised…and competing for Serbia in the 100 fly. The man now to be known as “Milorad” said before the final heat that it would “be good for the sport” if Phelps lost, and for all but one meter out of the hundred, it looked as if Čavić would get his way. Thanks in part to a poor start, Phelps looked dead in the water—thankfully not literally—with only a few body lengths to go.
Čavić was right at the wall, gliding in to kill the dream, when Phelps took a half-stroke and miraculously touched one-one hundredth of a second before him. The hard part over, Phelps casually broke Spitz’s all-time record on August 17 with another WR and gold medal in the 4x100m medley relay.
It capped off a Games for Phelps that was—by all measurements—virtually perfect. Eight events, eight golds. Seven world records, one Olympic one.
And while the rise of Lochte and others as more-than-formidable challengers to the throne will surely provide some riveting drama of its own, no Olympic spectacle is ever likely to match that of Phelps for that one unforgettable month in Beijing.