As on many Saturday nights in Manhattan, The Gin Mill is packed. Although not necessarily known as a sports bar, the place is transformed into one on the evening of August 16,2008. Patrons’ attention is riveted to numerous high-definition televisions, not because of a Yankees-Red Sox game but rather in anticipation of watching forty-one-year-old Dara Torres swim the 50 meter freestyle at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The close race has everyone captivated, but there is collective disappointment as Torres wins the silver medal, finishing .01 seconds behind Germany’s Britta Steffen. Not long thereafter, patrons again put down their drinks and watch the women’s 4 x 100 meter medley relay with anticipation. Three minutes and fifty-three seconds of nonstop swimming action later, there is again collective disappointment as the team of Torres, Natalie Coughlin, Christine Magnuson, and Rebecca Soni place second to Australia.
Despite the crowd’s demonstrated interest, the evening’s main event has yet to occur. Then, at approximately 11:00 P.M., the U.S. men’s 4 x 100 meter medley relay team of Aaron Perisol, Brendan Hansen, Michael Phelps, and Jason Lezak steps toward the pool. The previous night, more than sixty-six million people had watched Phelps win his dramatic seventh gold medal of these Games, barely edging Serb Milorad Cavic in the 100 meter butterfly.1 With the victory Phelps had tied the legendary Mark Spitz by winning seven gold medals at one Olympic Games, and was about to compete for an unprecedented eighth gold medal in Beijing. All eyes at The Gin Mill were focused on the pool at the Water Cube.
“Alright, we’re going to turn off the music and turn on the commentary so that we can all watch the swimming,” a voice says over the bar’s loudspeaker— an exceptionally rare respite from the pulsating music normally heard.