ATHENS — Michael Phelps lost a half-million dollars Monday.
Last night, he felt like a million.How did Phelps react to the end of his dream to match the greatest feat in the history of the Summer Olympics?
All Phelps did was recover with a double shot of gold, an expected victory in the 200-meter butterfly and a role-reversing one in the 800 freestyle relay. It wasn't his fastest night of racing, but it was the most memorable.
Phelps couldn't come up with the words to describe his fulfillment.
"Being able to win two gold medals in one night, I don't know what to say," Phelps said. "I'm speechless."
Bob Bowman, his coach, nodded in agreement when asked if it was the best night of their lives. Phelps had returned to the top of the Summer Games 24 hours after being written off for failing to duplicate Mark Spitz's seven gold medals of 1972.
Phelps can't win seven gold medals. Instead of a $1 million bonus from Speedo, he's probably going to make about half of that in performance-based incentives in Athens, but a professional athlete can't buy the thrills the 19-year-old from Rodgers Forge experienced last night.
The day began with the entire U.S. contingent in possession of three gold medals. It ended with Phelps wearing that many and in great position to double his total when swimming concludes its eight-day program Saturday.
Overcome by the fatigue of 10 races in four days, the stress of the world's biggest athletic event and relief at repelling an unexpectedly strong challenge from Japan's Takashi Yamamoto in the butterfly, Phelps' eyes welled up at 8:34 p.m.
"I left a lot of tears on that podium," Phelps said.
They were likely his first tears in public since the periodic tantrums he tossed as a boy at the Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center.
Twenty minutes later, Phelps composed himself and staked the Americans to a 1-second lead on the first leg of the relay. It never got smaller and led to a reverse image of Monday's 200 freestyle aftermath: Australia's Ian Thorpe hung his head, and Phelps pumped his arms and let out a primal scream.
"I'm more excited about the 4-by-2 [the relay]," Phelps said. "That's the most exciting race I've ever been a part of."
Individually, Phelps won the 200 butterfly in 1 minute, 54.04 seconds, 0.11 off the world record he set last year and 0.52 in front of Yamamoto.
Yamamoto, 26, had never medaled in an international meet tougher than the Asian championships, but he mounted a furious challenge off the final turn. Phelps unleashed his trademark late surge, and now hasn't lost a 200 butterfly in two years and owns seven of the event's nine times under 1:55.
Bronze medalist Stephen Parry of Britain had beaten Phelps in the semifinals the previous night, when the American was weary after taking bronze in the 200 freestyle. Thinking upset, Princess Anne asked to present the butterfly medals, but Phelps has become as much of a given there as the Australians were in the 800 relay.
Australia had been invincible in the relay since the 1996 Olympics, pummeling the Americans at assorted international stops with a core of Thorpe, Grant Hackett and Michael Klim.
"Certainly," Klim said, "we feel like we owned that race."
Thorpe's 200 freestyle gold Monday officially ended the Phelps-Spitz watch. With perhaps a third of the news media attention that race attracted, the Americans rebounded with one of their best relay wins ever and made amends for Sunday's bronze in the 400 freestyle relay.
Racing in last night's relay on less than an hour's rest, Phelps passed Hackett in the second 50 and touched with a lead of 1.01 seconds. That advantage grew as Ryan Lochte raced Klim and Peter Vanderkaay went against Nicholas Sprenger, but was a lead of 1.48 seconds enough for anchor Klete Keller to hold off Thorpe?
In the 200 freestyle Monday, Thorpe was 1.42 faster than Keller, who finished fourth.
Phelps and Thorpe both made the tactical mistake of going out too fast last night. Phelps didn't pay for his in the 200 butterfly, but Thorpe regretted his impatience on the relay anchor. He gained nearly a second on Hackett in the first 50, but Keller swam a more balanced race, never surrendered the lead and touched 0.13 ahead.
"Klete anchored that race perfectly," Phelps said. "His swim was the reason we won."
The time of 7:07.33 was Phelps' second American record in as many nights and began a celebration that dwarfed his revelry for Saturday's 400 IM win.
As the medalists paraded on the deck, Phelps' sister Hilary tossed him a Beanie Baby version of an English bulldog.
Phelps plans to buy the real thing as soon as his life slows down. He has the first two rounds of the 200 IM today and now is favored to win gold on each of the last three nights of Olympic swimming.