The relays have always been, arguably, Phelps' favorite events. For those few moments, he is not viewed as the greatest swimmer in all the world. He is just an American, working together with three other men, the sturdy leg of a chair or wheel of a car.

"I think he likes the aspect of having it not be about him, because so much of it is," said Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman.

"I think he loves getting with those guys because he loves team sports like basketball and football, and it's the one time he really gets to feel a part of something."

A measure of luck
He could not have won eight golds without some measure of luck.

His decision to take one final stroke in the 100-meter butterfly yesterday - especially when Serbia's Milorad Cavic chose to glide into the wall 0.01 seconds slower - was both clutch and fortuitous. Even he thought it was, in the moment, the wrong choice.

"I really thought that cost me the race, but it happened to be the direct opposite," Phelps said.

Luck, though, played such a small role when compared with preparation. Phelps' week was mapped out virtually down to the minute by Bowman, the man who is equal parts orchestra conductor and mad scientist when it comes to swimming.

Even when China chose not to wait for Phelps - a bus pulled away midweek as he and his coach were running to catch it - solutions were devised.

"The buses do this little turn-around, and I told him, go stand out in the middle of the road," Bowman said. "He did, and they stopped."

It's an appropriate metaphor for the games: Phelps standing in front of us all, forcing us to stop, just for moment, and join him for the ride. Even President Bush grabbed a seat early in the week, waving a small American flag and shooting Phelps the thumbs-up after each world record fell.

"To be honest, I think it's probably one of the greatest things in the history of sport," Hansen said. "The world is fast at swimming now. It was not fast when Mark Spitz did the seven.

"It's like making the final putt to win the U.S. Open, he won the Tour de France, he knocked out the best fighter in the world in the 16th round with an uppercut. He did absolutely everything in the sport you are supposed to do and he did it with a smile on his face."

Tears and hugs
Phelps smiled with each trip to the medal stand, having done it so often, he began offering advice to the Americans who joined him on the podium. His eyes filled with tears this morning as so many emotions swirled inside his head. He couldn't wait to hug his mom, Debbie, and his sisters Whitney and Hilary

"My mom and I were joking the last few days about an English teacher I had who said I'd never be successful," Phelps said.

Thousands of miles and oceans away, his country was watching. Word trickled back to him that his races were leading the news, that 70,000 people had watched his race inside M&T Bank Stadium after the Ravens' exhibition loss to the Minnesota Vikings. That may have been the greatest reward of all.

"My big goal is to change the sport of swimming," Phelps said. "For the kids coming up in the sport and also for of the sport in America. So my goal is starting to happen, but there is still a long way to go with that. I'm sure Bob and I can think of something in the next four years."

kevin.vanvalkenburg @baltsun.com