A Work In Progress: Phelps's 8th Symphony
Craig Lord
When the movement is in place, when all the notes align, when Bob Bowman lays down his baton on Sunday, the world of swimming will have been transfigured by a towering talent the likes of which we have never seen

We saw the sun today. And the moon and the stars and all the planets on a tour of the aquatic orbit of a truly unique human being, a man whose achievements come straight from the book of comic-strip super-heroes. We soar at the sight of it all. Close your eyes and recall Christmas as a child and you get close to how it feels to watch what is unfolding before our eyes here at the Water Cube in Beijing.

Michael Phelps referred to being "almost half way through my races" after taking the 200m freestyle crown in a world record of 1:42.96. Phelps's 8th Symphony is becoming clearer. With each passing race, we hear a few more notes. Beethoven's Ninth, Mozart's Clarinet Concerto In A, K 622 - 2, Adagio, Rodrigo's haunting Concierto de Aranjuez. The balance, the rhythm, the beat, the drop, the harmony in between. The uplifting beauty of it all. So it is with Phelps. In all the years I have watched swimming, I cannot recall seeing something so complete. Each movement is a joy in itself but the Bob Bowman masterpiece  comes with a warning: Do Not Apply Party Shuffle. This is not a work to be heard with background noise and songs of different kind. Comparison with Nurmi, Latynina, Spitz and Lewis is inevitable at a point where Superfish matches the magic nine all-time career gold record for the Olympic Games. But the composition is not yet complete. Epic underplays the theme at play here. 

I've read elsewhere that some are "bored" with the inevitability of it all". They should have been here in this building where the tune grows more intense. They would surely have come to a different conclusion. Maybe not. There are places in the world, such as Australia, where the thrill of swimming is understood and celebrated by a wider population, and places in the world where people stare back at you and ask "so, you follow swimming?", in a tone that screams a silent "how bizarre". Even so, I struggle to imagine how anyone along that spectrum could sit and watch Phelps and not feel a slight rush of blood to the head.

  Nicole Jeffery, my learned colleague on The Australian, noted this morning that even for a man who performs five miracles before lunchtime, Phelps excelled himself today. 1:42.92. The champion simply could not believe it himself. He expected "special" - Bowman having convinced him that off a 47.51 standing start 100m, his feet should hit the wall at 50-point half-way in the 200m title chase - he got "Beamonesque Bonus" wrapped in a golden ribbon with a cherry on top and a check call for all those who think 1:45 is where it's at. 

  The puppet master, the maestro, the painter. Bowman is at work all the way. That relay? Those fireworks? What did all mean? Gold, Lezak, thrill and a half times 10. But more importantly: 47.51? Come on Mikey: you can get your feet on the wall in 50-point. No reason why not. Yes, sir. Doable plus. Here we go. Three finals, three golds, three world records, Olympic records in qualifying and a near world-record in a 100m lead-off that speaks more of the encore that may follow Beijing on the way to London 2012. So far, so perfect. Not just the result. When Phelps is rolling through the water, he moves like a killer whale heading into a seal kill. Latent power and controlled aggression combine with an accuracy of thought that is steely and cutting in nature. Watch the cupping of Phelps's hand, the roll of the whole arm and shoulder over an invisible barrel as he harnesses his element, an invisible yoke to transport him through translucence. Warp-speed, second star on the right, straight on 'til morning kind of stuff. Will there be an opponent with a reply this week? We will see soon enough - and when the movement is in place, when all the notes align, when Bowman lays down his baton on Sunday, the world of swimming will have been transfigured by a towering talent the likes of which we have never seen. How lucky are we to be here to witness it.

The 23-year-old said that a rare loss in the 200m freestyle at the 2004 Games in Athens had helped to drive him on ever since and had out the fire in his belly for what unfolded this morning. In that battle with Thorpey and Hoogie in Greece - the one dubbed somewhat prematurely the "race of the century" - Phelps finished third as the Aussie added the four-length crown to his two eight-length titles.

"I hate to lose," Phelps said today. "And getting third in the 200 free four years ago...You know, when I do lose in a race like that and in circumstances like that, it motivates me even more to try and swim faster. I think over the past four years I've been able to make some pretty significant drops in the 200 free. I couldn't ask for anything else so far from my first three medal races," he added. "We've done everything that I've wanted to do so far."

On drawing level at nine career golds with the all-time record holders, Americans Mark Spitz, Carl Lewis, Finland's Paavo Nurmi and Soviet gymnast Larysa Latynina, Superfish said: "To be tied for the most Olympic golds of all time, with those names in Olympic history and the Olympics have been around for so many years, is a pretty amazing accomplishment. It's pretty cool. It's definitely an honour. I've been able to spend some time with Carl Lewis and exchange a few words with Spitz here and there, so it's pretty amazing."

 The challenges ahead: the 200 'fly final, the 4x200m free relay, the 200IM, the 100 'fly against Ian Crocker and the 4x100m medley that depends on the outcome of his tilt at Spitz's seventh wave in the solo 'fly on Saturday. How to get through it? "I've been sleeping as much as I can," he said. "Just about every morning I have woken up at about 4.30 or 5 o'clock. It takes me a while to fall back to sleep and when I do fall back I get an extra half an hour. It takes me a while to get up in the morning. But it's the Olympics, so you have to."

As for the 8th Symphony being inevitable, I point to the sunset, to the migration, to the flight of swallows, to the birth of a child - all inevitable. All glorious.