Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, is poised, Baltimore-Bullet-like, to collect a record eighth gold medal at the Water Cube in Beijing and place beyond doubt his claim to being the greatest of the greats. Hollywood could hardly have scripted a more dramatic conclusion to Phelps’s quest to match the record seven gold-medal tally that has stood to American swimmer Mark Spitz since 1972. By 0.01sec, the smallest permissible margin in the pool, the 23-year-old from Maryland, retained the 100m butterfly title in 50.58sec, an Olympic record, and lifted a $1m bonus from the British suitmaker Speedo, designer of the LZR Racer that has propelled Superfish to super standards all week.
The same two lengths of butterfly American teammates in a medley relay tipped to shatter the world record this morning represented the last note of coach Bob Bowman’s Phelps Eighth Symphony: eight gold medals, seven world records, and a career tally of 14 gold medals, five more than the nearerst sporting immortals, Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi , Soviet gymnast Larysa Latynina, Spitz and American track and field star Carl Lewis. With two bronzes from Athens 2004, Phelps was also eyeing an overall medals tally of 16, one more than previous record holder, Soviet gymnast Nikolai Andrianov.
Seventh at the half-way turn in the butterfly, Phelps built up a massive momentum as he clawed his way back into contention on the way home to history. A final surge looked to have come too late but what the naked eye could not see, electronic timing confirmed: Serbia's Milorad Cavic had to settle for silver in a European record, with Andrew Lautersten, of Australia, third. Phelps punched the air and screamed with joy as a capacity crowd in the Water Cube rose to hail him. Job done. "It's pretty cool, that's all I can say," said Phelps. "I am in a sort of dream world."
Spitz, a man now matched after a 36-year wait, described Phelp’s pathway to the pantheon of greats as “epic”. The 58-year-old pioneer of 1972, who criticised the International Olympic Committee for not having invited him to China to witness Phelp’s quest to match him, was to be found in Detroit, watching one of his two sons play in a basketball tournament. When NBC caught up with him, the living legends met across a screen and Spitz said: "I wondered what I was going to say at this monumental time when it would happen and who I would say it to, and, of course, I thought I was going to say it to you (Phelps) for some time now. The word comes to mind: epic. What you did tonight was epic. I never thought for one moment you were out of that race. You represent such an inspiration to youngsters around the world."
Phelps thought he had blown his big moment. "As soon as I took the last half stroke, to be honest, I thought I had lost the race. And that [0.01sec] was the difference, 'cause if I would have glided then I would have come up short. I've been lucky enough over the last four years to have two pretty good finishes in Olympic finals. I guess I'm blessed." The hand of aquatic gods did seem to be at play.
Phelps will race on to London 2012, he confirmed, though he will target different events. If he wins two medals of any colour at the Games in Britain, he will have matched the record for the most-medalled Olympian ever, Latynina, on 18. There is no end to the targets Phelps is prepared to chase, it seems.