Please, gods of swimming: let him be real
BEIJING -- The oddly shaped athlete.
The incredibly shaped performances.
The strangely shaped expressions on the competitors who talk about him.
Watching Michael Phelps win six Olympic gold medals while helping to set six world records has become eerily like watching another unusually muscled man perform superhuman feats while resurrecting a sport and capturing a country.
Ten years ago, to be exact.
Guy by the name of Mark McGwire.
This is not an indictment. This is not an accusation. This is a wish.
Please, let this be clean. Please, let this be real.
Please, if Phelps can win his races on Saturday and Sunday to win eight gold medals and complete the greatest single Olympics performance in history, let that be the end of it.
No flunked drug tests. No flunked swimsuit tests. No tell-all books about clandestine doctors and cheating coaches.
America won’t be able to stomach it. Swimming won’t be able to survive it.
For once, please, let one of our heroes really be a hero.
Right now, I have no doubts, but I do have plenty of memories.
I documented McGwire’s home-run chase with Sammy Sosa, and I remember this exact feeling.
You shake your head with every swing, because nobody ever swung that way before. You work your pen with every interview, because none of his colleagues can believe it. You call home with every record, because everyone back home is paying attention.
That is what is happening now, only it’s happening in a swimming pool, and I truly hope it’s not all wet.
Did you watch Friday morning? Of course you did. Everyone is watching, and everyone is swooning.
Phelps blew away the field in the final lap of the 200 individual medley, breaking a world record that he had set just last month and finishing four seconds ahead of second-place finisher Laszlo Cseh of Hungary.
Four seconds in swimming? That’s like four touchdowns in football.
He was competing in his sixth Super Bowl this week and he’s still winning by four touchdowns?
Then things really got nuts.
Twenty minutes later, he stepped on the podium to receive his gold medal.
About seven minutes after that, he jumped back into the pool to qualify second in the 100-meter butterfly.
He was so rushed, his gold medal was in his warmup jacket that he shed before the race.
“He was so tired, that 100 fly has been his best swim of the week,” said Bob Bowman, Phelps’ coach. “It was all mental.”
Mental, America can believe. Physical, people wonder.
If a baseball player showed such incredible recovery skills, we’d already have him publicly convicted of steroids.
If a track star showed such sustaining power, we would be chasing them to the steps of a federal courthouse.
Marion Jones is in jail. Barry Bonds is in purgatory. McGwire is in exile.
Please, let Michael Phelps always be flying up there above the rest of us, goofy and gifted, throwing his flowers to his mother, fighting back tears during every playing of his anthem, kicking the snot out of everyone with a smile.
Please, let this be true.
When asked whether he understood how America might be doubting, Bowman smiled.
“Yes, of course,” he said. “But you have to look back at the last dozen years, how Michael has developed during that time. It’s a long process. This has not just happened overnight.”
The look of his beaten opponents suggests that they might think otherwise.
On Friday, I talked to the seventh- and eighth-place finishers in the 200 individual medley.
Up close, neither of them looked anything like the perfectly muscled Phelps.
Up close, they talked as if they had just seen a vision.
“This is mind-boggling,” said Keith Beavers, the seventh-place finisher from Canada. “Considering the depth of the field, and how long this meet is, what he is doing is just amazing.”
Liam Tancock of Britain shook his head.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “It’s way, way up there.”
When Phelps sat in front of the microphone for his daily news conference, I had to ask the question.
I felt like I was throwing a stink bomb into a flower bed by asking it, but it has been asked before, and many folks back home are asking it still.
How do you respond to people who, given America’s recent history of soiled heroes, say you are too good to be true?
Phelps calmly, and immediately, answered.
“Anybody can say what they want. I know, for me, I’m clean,” Phelps said. “I purposely wanted to do more tests to prove it. People can say what they want, but the facts are the facts.”
End of discussion, end of story, six gold medals won, two gold medals needed to decorate Michael Phelps with a rare piece of unblemished sports history.
I hope. We should all hope.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@ latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.