BEIJING — BEIJING - A champion like none other, and a win like none before.
Seven down. One to go. But boy, was Michael Phelps' seventh gold medal of these Olympics a jaw-dropper. An athlete who swallows nails for breakfast had the entire world chewing on theirs for 50.58 seconds of the 100-meter butterfly.
Swimming in seventh place at the halfway point, Phelps bounced off the wall and shot through the field, using one final stroke to push himself to gold, besting Serbia's Milorad Cavic by less than a .01 of a second.
The finish was so close that even the video replay wasn't conclusive. Cavic had his arms outstretched, pleading for the wall. Meanwhile, in the next lane over, Phelps' arms windmilled through the air one last time.
To his mother and his coach, to those in the stands and those watching at home, it sure looked like Phelps was dead in the water. His aspirations for eight gold medals - which would break Mark Spitz's record of seven, in case you hadn't heard - finished. Melted at the Water Cube.
Even Phelps wasn't sure. "I had to take my goggles off first to make sure the No. 1 was next to my name," he said.
The sensors don't lie, though, and Phelps is now on the front porch of history, knocking loudly on the door. A win in the 400 medley relay would give him a seat alongside the ancient Greek gods that oversee the Olympics.
Surprised? Probably shouldn't be.
That's Phelps. He wins in every way possible. He can beat you with any stroke. He wins off the blocks, at the turns and at the final wall.
It's an incredible testament to his athleticism. Phelps had competed in 15 races over the previous seven days. It's understandable that he would be tired heading into one of the most competitive races of his program. (It's the only race, in fact, in which Phelps does not hold the world record.) So when he was slow to the 50-meter wall - more than a half-second behind Cavic - he seemed doomed.
In previous races at these Games, he relied on his intense focus, unmatched mental preparation, his ability to compartmentalize and his sheer determination and thirst for gold. This one was simpler. Phelps simply outswam everyone else, racing a blistering pace over the final 50 meters. You could almost see a trail of smoke rising from behind him in the water.
With corporate logos decorating his chase for eight golds, Phelps' pursuit is not amateurism in any sense. But what we are witnessing is athleticism in its purest form.
In keeping with the spirit of the Games, Phelps is faster than anything in water, stronger than any opponent and raising the bar higher than it has ever been raised.
He's not simply challenging the limits set before him. He's blowing past them, moving the marker of possibilities miles beyond anyone's reach.
While last night's race was close - he still set an Olympic record - his previous races showed just how far ahead he is of the entire world. He opened the Games winning the 400 individual medley by 2.22 seconds. In the 200 butterfly, he shaved more than two full seconds off his Olympic-record time from Athens. In the 200 free, he finished more than two seconds ahead of the field and nearly two seconds again in the 200 IM.
In the water, where a trip to the medal stand and a long, tearful flight home can be separated by just .1 of a second, a two-second margin is like a basketball team winning by a triple-digit margin. And he has posted such wins with remarkable consistency and modesty this week.
Sport has evolved for the better and for the worse since the first Olympiad, and make no mistake, what Phelps is doing is a celebration of the good. The focus is solely on his athletic achievement. The only thing sensational about Phelps' quest is the very nature of his dominance. There are no Hollywood starlets in the stands. No highly publicized ego clash with a coach. The trash-talking is refreshingly replaced by humility.
"I just get in the water and swim," Phelps says. "That's the only thing I think about."
In picking up gold medal No. 7 - and a $1 million check from Speedo - Phelps had no time to think in his final individual race of these Games. It was automatic. He relied on the most reliable thing he has - his athleticism.
By now, even he seems in awe of the jabs, crosses and uppercuts he's delivering each day to the record books.
"He's very moved," says his mother, Debbie Phelps. "You can see it when he's on the medal stand. He's very emotional over the whole thing. He knows - he appreciates - what's happening."
After the race, while everyone else was still coming to terms with what they had witnessed, Cavic's handlers refused to believe. They questioned the finish and reviewed the footage, certain the results were wrong. How could Phelps have come back and won?
Any protest was futile. Cavic and his coach just had to learn it the hard way - Phelps is unbeatable.
He has written his legacy lightly in pencil. With one more race remaining, he'll trace over it in ink.
Phelps is an athlete like few others. He's as comfortable in the weight room as he is in the swimming pool and is as deserving of his place on the medal stand as he is his place in history.