Gold Rush; at a History-Making Olympics, a Swimmer at His Best and Two Young Gymnasts Who Shone Brightest When It Counted Most Have Given Us Miracle Moments

Article excerpt

Byline: Devin Gordon (With T. Trent Gegax)

At 7:52 p.m., 19-year-old Michael Phelps touched the wall after the 200-meter butterfly final last week, then looked up and found the familiar "1" next to his name on the scoreboard. He pumped his fist twice and climbed out of the water. He didn't smile. He didn't have time. A minute before 8, he got his earlobe pricked for a blood lactate test to determine how fast his fatigued muscles were recovering--an on-the-fly checkup. Next he hit the warm-down pool for 17 minutes, coasting about 1,200 meters to keep his muscles loose. He toweled off at 8:20, changed from his short-leg swimsuit to the long legs--a superstition--and re-emerged for the gold-medal ceremony. At 8:27, as Phelps waited behind the podium for his name to be announced, he did something we may never see again at the Olympics: he started stretching. In 13 minutes, Phelps had to get back in the pool for the lead leg of the 4x200m freestyle relay. He swam fast, handing off a big lead, and then watched nervously as relay anchor Klete Keller withstood a furious charge from Australian superstar Ian Thorpe to give the United States a heart-stopping win. This time Phelps went nuts. "I don't think I've ever celebrated like that in my entire life," he said afterward, a giant smile creasing his face like an accordion.

It was fitting that Phelps, the multitasking, multistroke medal machine, should derive so much more joy from a team victory than a personal one. The historic first week of the Olympics for the United States was repeatedly defined by perseverance of the mind and stoutness of soul--and not the ugly ego-tripping for which so many U.S. stars have been remembered. Start with gymnast Paul Hamm, flat on his back and dead to rights after a disastrous vault, believing he had ruined his dreams of a gold medal in the individual all-around. But he smothered his anguish and stormed back from 12th place to gold in just two rotations for the most stunning victory in gymnastics history. The next night Carly Patterson completed a first-ever gold-medal double for the United States, sticking to her floor routine to overcome Russia's Svetlana Khorkina in the all-around. (And don't look now, but even the much-maligned men's basketball team seems to be... nope, never mind, they just lost again.) But above all, there was Phelps, who needed just one week to secure a place in the pantheon of Olympic legends like Jesse Owens, Dorothy Hamill, Carl Lewis and, yes, Mark Spitz. That last name disappeared from the Phelps conversation unexpectedly early, as two bronze medals in his first three races put Spitz's seven-gold-medal feat out of reach.

It was the best thing to happen to Phelps all week. Free to write his own story, he came up with a doozy. His astonishing eight-medal total, including six golds and a pair of not-too-shabby bronzes, matched an Olympic record for most in a single Games. (Only Soviet gymnast Aleksandr Dityatin had done it before--at the U.S.-boycotted Moscow Games in 1980--and only three of his were gold.) "It'll sink in when he's 40," said his coach Bob Bowman. "He knows it's historic, but he doesn't know what history is yet." The Baltimore teenager entered these games as the next Mark Spitz. He'll leave them as the first Michael Phelps.

Before he exited, though, Phelps had one more trick up his sleeve, and it may be the one that comes to define his career. After wrapping up a week for the ages, he also proved himself to be the consummate teammate by withdrawing from his final race, the 400m medley relay, to give a demoralized friend one more shot at gold.

Ian Crocker, a quiet 21-year-old from Maine, was having a nightmarish time. Plagued by a sore throat, he bombed in the 400m freestyle relay and the 100m freestyle. He knew he had to win the 100 fly over Phelps on Friday to earn a slot in Saturday's medley relay final, and after 50 meters he had a commanding lead. But Phelps surged forward and caught Crocker at the wall, winning by four hundredths of a second--a fingernail. …