BEIJING -- Water threatened to sink Michael Phelps’ bid for eight gold medals at a single Olympics and nearly delayed his ascendancy in becoming the most decorated athlete in Olympic history.
If that sounds strange, you try swimming a 200-meter butterfly with water filling your goggles and getting worse by the second.
Phelps said he couldn’t see anything for about the last 100 meters, but he got his hand on the gold medal in that event, in a world-record 1 minute 52.03 seconds, and later added another win, in the 800 freestyle relay in 6:58.56 (another world record), to reach five gold medals here at these Olympics.
Add that to his six from Athens in 2004 and he hit 11 gold medals overall. He arrived at the Water Cube on Wednesday morning tied at nine with these luminaries: swim legend Mark Spitz, U.S. track star Carl Lewis, Soviet gymnast Larysa Latynina and Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi for the most gold medals of all time.
Everyone on hand, including U.S. basketball players Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, witnessed a slice of Olympic history. Except for Phelps, that is. He had to settle for hearing it.
“I couldn’t see anything for the last 100, my goggles were pretty much filling up with water,” Phelps said. “It kept getting worse and worse through the race. To be honest, I was having trouble seeing the walls.”
Who hasn’t had problems peering into the distance in Beijing? But this had nothing to do with bad air quality. Phelps tossed his cap and goggles onto the pool deck, looking less than thrilled, and said later he was upset. He rubbed his eyes, probably a byproduct of his close encounter with chlorine.
Well, he is the King of Chlorine with five world records in five events.
He thought about the historical implications when he received his gold medal for the 200 fly.
“That’s when I started tearing up,” Phelps said. “Being at the top, with so many great athletes who have walked in these Olympic Games, is a pretty amazing feeling.”
Who would have thought history would sting Phelps? Between goggle-gate and the thriller of a come-from-behind win behind Jason Lezak’s anchor leg in the 400 freestyle relay, Phelps’ road has taken a couple of unexpected turns in Beijing.
It was never going to be easy -- the approach to Mark Spitz’s record seven gold medals in one Olympics and all-time Olympic history. For all his issues, Phelps did win the 200 fly by 0.67 seconds, practically a close race by his lofty standards.
Fortunately, for Phelps, the goggles weren’t a problem in the relay. He led it off and uncorked an impressive split of 1:43.31, followed by U.S. teammates Ryan Lochte, Ricky Berens and Peter Vanderkaay.
“We wanted to break seven minutes,” Phelps said. “That was our goal going into today. It’s average 1:45.0 or better. With Ricky’s split yesterday, he had a great split in the morning in the prelims of the 200 free, and Peter had been 1:45 flat start, Ryan’s been 1:45 flat start, so we kind of had a pretty good idea we could break seven minutes. It definitely feels good to be the first group, first country to ever dip under the seven-minute barrier. “
Unlike Tuesday’s final in the 200 freestyle, Phelps was pushed early in the butterfly, and by an unexpected source, Moss Burmester of New Zealand in Lane 1, well away from Phelps’ Lane 4. Phelps lowered his own world mark, which had been 1:52.09, set at the world championships in Melbourne last year. Laszlo Cseh of Hungary was second, in 1:52.70.
“I wanted to go 1:51 or better but for the circumstance, I guess it’s not too bad,” Phelps said.
His onetime club teammate, Katie Hoff, was out of the medals in two finals, finishing fourth in both. Hoff lowered her American record in the 200 freestyle, in 1:55.78, but finished behind winner Federica Pellegrini of Italy, who won in a world-record 1:54.82; Sara Isakovic of Slovenia and Jiaying Pang of China
“I would have liked to have medaled, but I got my first personal best of the meet,” said Hoff.
Her other fourth-place finish came in the 200 individual medley, which was won by Stephanie Rice of Australia, in 2:08.45, also a world record. Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe took the silver (2:08.59) and Natalie Coughlin was third in 2:10.34, then Hoff in 2:10.68.
World records sprinkled the morning session, starting with the semifinals of the 100 freestyle. Alain Bernard of France took the record from Eamon Sullivan of Australia in the first semifinal, and Sullivan grabbed it back, going 47.05.
Lezak was the sixth-fastest qualifier, in 47.98, and Garrett Weber-Gale, who won this event at the U.S. trials, did not reach the final, finishing 10th. Scott Spann was the third-fastest qualifier for the 200 breaststroke, and Eric Shanteau, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer shortly before the Olympic trials in Omaha, was 10th-fastest and missed making the final.
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For the record
World records in swimming in Beijing:
*--* Aug. 10 Michael Phelps: 400 IM, 4:03.84. Final. Aug. 10 Stephanie Rice, Australia: 400 IM, 4:29.45. Final. Aug. 10 U.S. men: 400 freestyle relay (Nathan Adrian, Cullen Jones, -- Ben Wildman-Tobriner, Matt Grevers), 3:12.23. Prelims. Aug. 11 Kirsty Coventry, Zimbabwe: 100 backstroke, 58.77. Semifinals. Aug. 11 Kosuke Kitajima, Japan: 100 breaststroke, 58.91. Final. Aug. 11 U.S. men: 400 freestyle relay (Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale, -- Cullen Jones, Jason Lezak), 3:08.24. Final. Aug. 11 Eamon Sullivan, Australia. 100 freestyle, -- opening leg of 400 freestyle relay, 47.24. Final. Aug. 11 Federica Pellegrini, Italy, 200 freestyle, 1:55.45. Prelims. Aug. 12 Michael Phelps, U.S., 200 freestyle, 1:42.96. Final. Aug. 12 Aaron Peirsol, U.S., 100 backstroke, 52.54. Final. Aug. 13 Alain Bernard, France, 100 freestyle, 47.20. Semifinal. Aug. 13 Eamon Sullivan, Australia, 100 freestyle, 47.05. Semifinal. Aug. 13 Federica Pellegrini, Italy, 200 freestyle, 1:54.82. Final. Aug. 13 Michael Phelps, U.S., 200 butterfly, 1:52.03. Final. Aug. 13 Stephanie Rice, Australia, 200 IM, 2:08.45. Final. Aug. 13 U.S. men: 800 freestyle relay (Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, -- Ricky Berens, Peter Vanderkaay), 6:58.56. Final. *--*