BEIJING — BEIJING - Michael Phelps didn't feel like himself Sunday morning in China. In the ready room, just a few meters from the pool inside the 11,000-seat Water Cube, he sat in silence by himself, listening to music with his head down.
Something was amiss. He looked, in every sense of the word, nervous, the rarest of emotions for Phelps.
But minutes before the start of the 400-meter individual medley final, something unusual happened.
"I started getting these chills up my body," Phelps said. "Right then, I knew I was starting to get more and more excited."
The excitement translated into another historic performance by Phelps as the 23-year-old from Rodgers Forge won his first gold medal of the 2008 Olympics, dominating the race and setting a world record with a time of 4 minutes, 3.84 seconds.
It was an event that most expected would be one of his toughest races this week, but Phelps showed just how ready he is to chase history, blowing past Hungary's Laszlo Cseh and American Ryan Lochte. He now has one gold medal down, and seven to go as he takes his best shot at breaking Mark Spitz's record of seven, set at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. With four more wins, he'll hold the record for most gold medals first-place finishes by an Olympian.
Towson's Katie Hoff also grabbed a small piece of personal history, winning her first Olympic medal with a third-place finish in the women's 400-meter individual medley.
Hoff swam within a second of her personal best time, but Australia's Stephanie Rice was simply too strong and too fast, cruising to the gold and shaving more than two seconds off of Hoff's world record with a time of 4 minutes, 29.45 seconds. Zimbabwe's Kristy Coventry touched just ahead of Hoff to win the silver.
"It's my first Olympic medal, so I'm excited," Hoff said.
Phelps's race was close through the first 200 meters, which usually isn't a good sign for him. His breaststroke is the weakest of his four strokes, and typically in the individual medley, he needs to be leading going into that stage of race.
"At 1:50, I saw the clock and how tight we were together," said Phelps. "I thought this was going to be pretty painful, the last 200 [meters]. I knew the breaststroke was going to be the key to race, and I think that was my fastest breaststroke split ever."
Leading by half a body length going into the final 50 meters, Phelps shot off the final wall as if he'd been rocketed forward by a trampoline.
He increased his lead over Cseh and Lochte by a margin so overwhelming that he even allowed himself to get a little emotional over the final few meters. As he stroked toward the wall, he said he had something of an out-of-body experience, thinking back to his race in Athens, when he won his first gold medal.
"I remember coming off the last wall in Athens, and it was kind of the same feeling," Phelps said. "I saw myself out there. I sort of started smiling, and then I realized I was hurting and they could catch me if I didn't start moving."
After he finished, Phelps pumped his arms and scanned the crowd, trying to find his mother, Debbie, and his sisters Hillary and Whitney. He couldn't figure out where they were sitting, but he did make eye contact with President Bush, who was in attendance with his wife Laura, his daughter Barbara and his father, former President George H. W. Bush.
President Bush waved a tiny American flag, gave Phelps a thumbs-up, and then nodded to him after he climbed out of the pool.
"That's a pretty special feeling. I waved and nodded my head back. That's a pretty special to have the president here cheering you on," Phelps said.
On the medal podium, Phelps was uncharacteristically emotional, with his eyes welling up with tears during the national anthem. He wanted to sing along to the lyrics, but he was so overwhelmed by the moment that all he could do was grin.
"I couldn't stop crying," Phelps said. "I was just thinking about everything I've been through this year. It was just really emotional."
About the only thing that didn't go smoothly was the playing of the national anthem. The recording started late, then cut of before the final line, right after "land of the free."
Phelps just shrugged his shoulders and laughed when the song stopped playing. Odds are, the Chinese will have plenty of chances to get it right throughout the week.
What's Next for Phelps
EVENT: : 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: : This is probably the toughest challenge for Phelps. France has already declared itself the favorite, with Alan Bernard saying the French will "smash" the Americans. Look for Phelps to swim the lead leg, just as he did in Melbourne at the 2007 World Championships, when the U.S. team won gold. In Athens, the United States won a bronze in this event, when Ian Crocker led off with a poor first leg, and Phelps' swim wasn't anything special.
EVENT: : 200-meter freestyle
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: : Phelps is the world record holder (1:43.86) and is nearly two seconds faster than the rest of the field. His closest competition, Pieter van den Hoogenband, dropped this event on the eve of the Games to focus on the 100-meter freestyle. This is the one individual event Phelps didn't win in Athens, so he'll be hungry to go fast and blow away the rest of the field. Phelps' training partner, Peter Vanderkaay, is the only swimmer with an outside shot at an upset.
TUESDAY NIGHT, FIRST FINAL
EVENTS: : 200-meter butterfly
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: : This is Phelps' dominant event. He's held the world record since 2001. An upset here would be one of the biggest surprises of the Olympics. At the world championships in Melbourne last year, Phelps broke his own world record by 1.68 seconds, a Bob Beamon-esque time drop in swimming. If American Gil Stovall or Greece's Ioannis Drymonakos are within a body-length of Phelps when he touches the wall, they can consider that victory.
TUESDAY NIGHT, SECOND FINAL
EVENT: : 4 x 200-meter freestyle relay
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: : This is probably Phelps' favorite event. In Athens, when the United States won this event, he went absolutely bonkers. Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Klete Keller all have a spot on the relay cemented, and the United States coaching staff will likely choose between Erik Vendt, Ricky Berens and David Walters for the four spot. A world record here would not be a surprise.
EVENT: : 200-meter individual medley
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: : Once again, Lochte and Laszlo Cseh of Hungary will be Phelps' closest competition. Phelps beat Lochte by nearly half-a-second at the Olympic trials, but Lochte had just finished swimming the 200-meter backstroke 25 minutes before their race. Lochte, who holds a share of the world record in the 200-meter backstroke, will face the same challenge in the Olympic final, giving Phelps all the advantage he needs to pull away.
EVENT: : 100-meter butterfly
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: : This is the only one of Phelps' events where he can't claim he's the fastest man alive. Ian Crocker, his U.S. teammate, holds the world record (50.40) and Phelps hasn't come within a half-second of that mark. Crocker hasn't gone that fast in three years, and seems to have a mental block when he races against Phelps. In Athens, Phelps trailed the entire race, but out-touched Crocker at the wall to win by .04 seconds. Expect a close race, but assume Phelps will get his hand on the wall first until Crocker proves otherwise. The winner gets to swim the fly leg of the finals in the medley relay.
EVENT: : 4 x 100 medley relay
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: : This is always one of the most exciting events of the Olympics, because it tests a nation's overall swimming strength. Four swimmers, four specialties. Aaron Piersol will lead off by swimming the backstroke, then turn it over to Brendan Hansen, who will swim the breaststroke. Phelps then gets his shot in the butterfly before passing off to Jason Lezak. The Americans will be heavy favorites in this event, and it could be the capper to a historic meet for Phelps.
Kevin Van Valkenburg