BEIJING - Michael Phelps touched the wall today, looked up at the scoreboard to find his time, then closed his eyes. He winced in pain, needing a moment to collect himself.
This one hurt.
It also felt pretty darn good.
Phelps won his sixth gold medal of the 2008 Olympics, and set his sixth world record in as many events, cruising home in 1 minute, 54.23 seconds to win the 200-meter individual medley.
He is now just one gold medal away from matching Mark Spitz's record of seven, set at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, and has two events remaining: the 100-meter butterfly and the 400-meter individual medley.
Phelps, who also won six gold medals in Athens, was more than two seconds faster than Hungary's Laszlo Cseh, who won silver for the second time behind Phelps, finishing in 1:56.52.
Phelps barely had time to appreciate it, though. On the medal stand, he smiled and waved for the cameras, then took a lengthy stroll around the pool with Cseh and U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte, who finished third, to pose for pictures. Immediately after it was over, Phelps zipped into the locker room, ripped off his sweats, threw on his parka, pulled on his swim cap, goggles and ear buds, then walked back onto the deck for the semifinals of the 100 fly.
"I had no time," said Phelps, who secured himself a spot in the 100 fly final with a time of 50.97. "The [gold] medal was in my warm-up jacket."
As brilliant as Phelps' two races were, he had to tip his swim cap to the incredible performance by his friend Lochte, who barely missed silver with a time of 1:56.53.
Approximately 27 minutes before the 200-meter individual medley, Lochte swam one of the most difficult races in the Olympic program - the 200-meter backstroke - and did it faster than any man in history.
Lochte lowered his own world record with a time of 1 minute, 53.94 seconds and did it by dethroning American Aaron Piersol, the defending Olympic gold medalist.
Lochte managed to pull it off even though his Speedo LZR Racer malfunctioned after 50 meters.
"For Ryan to come back 20 minutes later and almost have us finish 1-2, it's a pretty incredible swim," Phelps said. "It's an incredible day for him. I'm glad to see him get his first gold. It's a cool moment, and I know he's happy."
Lochte was as good a candidate as anyone to derail Phelps' historic run if someone was going to do it. A mellow 23-year-old from Daytona Beach, Fla., Lochte may be the antithesis of Phelps outside the pool.
A surfer and skateboarder who shies away from the spotlight and has a penchant for mischief and mishaps, he's such a free spirit that the U.S. coaching staff told him he wasn't allowed to bring his skateboard to China for fear he'd hurt himself.
The two are good friends and greet each other with the phrase "Juh!" - a nod to rapper Young Jeezy - almost every time they meet, but they're also fierce competitors.
"When me and Michael talk, it's strictly anything but swimming," Lochte said. "That's good for both of us. We're not always getting wound up about the Olympic thing."
He had to laugh this week when several reporters asked - without quite thinking it through - whether he wanted to see Phelps win eight gold medals.
Lochte didn't quite come out and say it, but it was clear he didn't come to the Beijing Games to lie down for anyone. He just didn't have quite enough today.
Milorad Cavic of Serbia might be the one man remaining capable of holding off Phelps' march toward history. (Phelps' main rival, Ian Crocker, has looked subpar this meet.)
Born in Orange County, Calif., and raised in the States, Cavic had the fastest time of the semifinals in the 100 fly, touching in 50.97 seconds.
Cavic's father moved to the United States in 1982 after the death of dictator Josef Broz Tito.
"There is no way I'm going to bad-mouth the United States," Cavic said. "Everything I've ever had in my life [I owe] to the United States. I didn't have to live through that war, I didn't have to sleep in a bunker. So I'm very fortunate."
Cavic called Phelps "the king" when talking with reporters, but he also said that it might be good for swimming if someone were able to stand up and beat him.
"I'm not going to give it to him," Cavic said. "It would be kind of nice to one day, when people speak of Michael Phelps winning seven gold medals, and have lost the opportunity to win eight, they'll talk about that guy that took it away from him.
"I'd love to be that guy."
Phelps, however, was king once again in the 200 IM, lowering a world record he has held since 2002, when he was 17 years old.
As he climbed out of the pool, he raised a weary arm in the direction of the crowd. They responded with polite applause, perhaps still in awe of the man who, this week, has made the remarkable look almost routine.
The region is caught up in swimming. Pg 9A