To: Kevin, et al.
Subject: How Phelps will make history
I'm changing the language. It's no longer Michael Phelps' quest. It's not a chase. It's not a dream, and it's not simply a goal either. Eight gold medals at the Olympics? Let's just start calling it what it is: Phelps' destiny.
I'd have to think long and hard to come up with another sporting event that I watched live that matched this relay performance. It was incredible. And while so much of the praise and accolades are deservingly showered on Jason Lezak, who swam an incredible anchor leg, we should probably step back and try to understand what it means in the bigger picture. Well, I tell you what it means: Phelps is going to do it; he's going to leave here with eight gold medals. In fact, it's almost entirely in Phelps' hands now.
I was hesitant to make such a declaration until the 400-meter freestyle relay. You'll recall that four years ago, the same relay is precisely where his 2004 bid for eight golds died. In fact, midway through today's race, I couldn't help but notice the similarities to Athens: Phelps begins the Olympics by breaking a world record in the 400 IM and then, in just the second day of competition, the air gets let out of the sail when the relay team falters.
It looked like deja vu through 300 meters of the relay. And through 350 meters. And through 375 meters. (Phelps' swam the first leg of the race and had the Americans in second place through 100.) Fortunately for Phelps, he had incredible teammates on his side. And fortunately for the Americans, the French are choking dogs. And fortunately for Lezak, he was prepared for the race of his life. Lezak smelled blood in the water and hunted down world record-holder Alain Bernard, giving the Americans a remarkable and unforgettable win. (It also produced some of the coolest post-race photos that Phelps has ever taken; in fact, Kevin, if you look closely at the pic above, it might look familiar. This is the exact face I make whenever I make deadline.)
After Phelps' record-setting win in the 400 IM one night earlier, it was clear that his chances at eight golds likely hinged on the 400 free relay. Don't expect him to find any challenger that pushes him in the individual events quite like this French relay team, a smack-talking, funny-pants-wearing 398-good-meters-swimming bunch.
You don't want to take for granted swimmers like Ian Crocker (100 fly) or Ryan Lochte (200 IM), but consider those races Phelps' to lose. (Crocker hasn't beat Phelps in a big meet since 2005 and Lochte seems doomed to always finish a fingernail behind Phelps; it doesn't help that Lochte has a second race on Friday to worry about.) And though the Americans were slight underdogs in this first relay, the two remaining relays shouldn't be nearly as difficult.
At the news conference following the race (which Phelps did not attend), reporters asked Cullen Jones, Garrett Weber-Gale and Lezak in a variety of ways how grateful Phelps must be that they came through for him, that their performance preserved his '08 chase for eight.
"We didn't do this for him," Lezak said. "He was just a part of it. And we're a part of it. It's just, whether he wins eight gold medals or not, it wasn't going to be our responsibility for that to happen."
Asked if Phelps gave his teammates plenty of thanks, Weber-Gale said, "There's none needed."
While Phelps himself didn't blow anyone out of the water in either of his races today (he finished fourth in the prelims for the 200 free, though he was likely conserving energy for the relay), there's just a certain energy around him at the pool right now. An undeniable sense of destiny and fate.
In fact, it feels like Phelps has already won eight gold medals, and if some other swimmer at these Games wants one, they're going to have to take it from him.
(Photo: Waly Skalij / Los Angeles Times)