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Winner takes it all
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 21 - 08 - 2008

200M MEDLEY and the 100m butterfly. Victory in the 4x100m relay rounded off a remarkable Olympics for the 6ft 4in swimmer, who has dominated the action in the Water Cube.
However, his final triumph was far from straightforward. Phelps dived into the water for the third leg butterfly with his team in third position but he powered them into the lead. Australian Eamon Sullivan tried to chase the Americans down but Lezak held on to clinch Phelps' record win. The victory took his Olympic medal haul to 14 golds, and 16 overall. Phelps admitted to being overwhelmed after achieving his feat, and was quick to pay tribute to his team-mates.
For an added twist of tension, Phelps won the 200m butterfly race despite a goggle malfunction. "When my goggles filled up there was nothing I could do. All I could do at that point was swim. I tried to see something at the 150 wall. I tried to see the T on the bottom to judge my turn. I was more or less trying to count my strokes, hoping I was dead on. I'm just disappointed because I know I can go faster than that."
His 11 gold medals in total stand two clear of the previous best -- the nine-gold-medal club consisting of four athletes, namely Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi, Ukrainian gymnast Larysa Latynina, US swimmer Mark Spitz and sprinter Carl Lewis. "When you have an Olympic gold medal, it stays with you forever," he said. "It's amazing and it definitely never gets old."
Indeed by the time the Beijing 2008 swimming competition concludes Phelps could also become the first person ever to win eight gold medals at a single Olympic tournament, surpassing Mark Spitz's seven at Munich 1972, and bringing his overall tally up to 14. Small wonder one of his friends sent him a cheeky text message after seeing Phelps step onto the podium for the tenth time: "Dude, how many times a day do I have to see your ugly face?"
At Athens 2004 Phelps took eight medals -- a feat only achieved by one other athlete, Russian gymnast Alexander Dityatin, in Moscow in 1980. Perhaps the most staggering thing is that, at 23 years old, Phelps is feasibly young enough to add more Olympic medals to his collection should he decide to carry on until London 2012.
So who is Michael Fred Phelps, and what is it that makes him the greatest Olympian in history?
Born in Baltimore in the US state of Maryland, Phelps -- known as the Baltimore Bullet -- suffered attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder as a teenager. He trained at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club under Coach Bob Bowman, who was later an assistant coach to the US swimming team at Athens 2004. Phelps was a talented junior swimmer who became the youngest-ever US swimmer to compete in the Olympic Games when he represented his country at the age of 15 at the Sydney 2000 Games in the men's 200m butterfly. A few months later, aged 15 years and 9 months, he became the youngest man to set a swimming world record, again in the 200m butterfly.
His first World Championship gold medal came in 2001, but the big breakthrough year was 2003, when Phelps won four gold medals and two silver at the World Championships in Barcelona. At Athens 2004, Phelps extended that to six gold medals and two bronze. Swimwear manufacturers Speedo offered Phelps $1 million if he won all eight medals -- an offer which has stayed on the table for Beijing 2008. Indeed a succession of lucrative sponsorship deals meant Phelps could no longer train as an amateur, so when Bowman moved to coach at the University of Michigan in 2004, Phelps followed too and trained at a local swimming club in Ann Arbor called Club Wolverine. Phelps has vowed not to work under any other coach than Bowman: "I don't think I would be where I am today with any other coach. He's always on top of things. We've been through a lot."
He maintained his grip as the world's number one swimmer by winning four gold and two silver medals at the 2005 World Championships, and then six gold medals at the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne, Australia. Then came this week's incredible record-breaking feats.
The bad news for Phelps's rivals is that he hasn't lost his thirst for more titles.
"This is something we've been preparing for over the past four years. The hard work is paying off and it's starting to show," he said.
Phelps will take part in Sunday's Olympic handover celebrations in London. "Being part of the handover party is going to be cool," he was quoted as saying. "I'll be glad to see where we'll compete and get my mind back on racing, competing and representing my country."
Despite admitting he was overwhelmed by the reaction to his success, Phelps said the thing that gave him most pride was his improvement as a swimmer. "Everything that I wanted was accomplished -- eight best times, that's what I wanted," he said. "When you put so much time into trying, it's about improving. I was able to improve over the last year so I was already successful -- no matter what happened with medals, I was already successful. I think the biggest thing is that I was as prepared as I could have been. I was in the best shape of my life. Everything went perfectly, as I planned, as I dreamt."
Phelps has been left "speechless" by the reaction to his eight gold medals in Beijing.
"I spoke to the president who said the country was behind me, and said 'give your mum a hug and tell her the president said to,'" said Phelps. "It's unreal having this feedback, you never realise it could happen." His success has been announced at baseball games and even rock concerts. "Having Bruce Springsteen come out at a concert and say I'd just won my seventh gold medal and then sing 'Born in the USA' -- it's incredible, you never realise it could happen -- you're speechless."
When he was growing up, one of Phelps's heroes was basketball legend Michael Jordan, and he said he hoped he could follow in his footsteps. "Growing up, I always remember the 'I want to be like Mike' ads with Jordan," he said. "He's one of the people I've always wanted to meet. What he did in the sport of basketball is what I am trying to do in the sport of swimming. He completely changed the sport of basketball."


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