Michael Phelps could see it clearly, even from 50 meters away. On the final lap of the men's 4x100 freestyle relay the U.S. was in second place, almost a body length behind France. As the French anchor, Alain Bernard, powered off the turn and headed for the finish, a grand Gallic victory seemed inevitable. Bernard, after all, is a rocket of a guy, a 6'5" 25-year-old who broke the 100 freestyle world record twice last spring and whose nickname is the Horse. Though the American anchor, three-time Olympian and veteran sprinter Jason Lezak, 32, is no couch potato himself, to overtake Bernard he would have to temporarily become superhuman. It was a lot to ask.
For Phelps, there was nothing to do but watch as his dream of eight gold medals circled the drain on Monday morning at the Water Cube. As the relay lead he'd hit the wall second, but it had taken a world record to beat him, Australia's Eamon Sullivan touching first in 47.24. Phelps's split of 47.51 was a mere one one-hundredth of a second over Bernard's world record heading into the Games; only a handful of men have ever broken 48 seconds—and all but one of them was swimming in this race. The French team was strong, it was deep and, in the view of many, it was favored. Used to be, at the Olympics the Americans won this relay all the time.But then in Sydney in 2000 they were beaten by the Australians and had to settle for silver, and in Athens four years later, a bronze, the result of a drubbing by South Africa and being touched out by the Netherlands. Now it looked as though they'd have to wait another four years to regain this crown and that Phelps would be heading back to Baltimore with at least one medal that was the wrong color.
But then Lezak did something we all dream of seeing when we watch the Olympic Games: He pulled off a miracle. He regained the lost ground, pulling even with Bernard at the 95-meter mark, and then he had a perfect finish, his hand tripping the timer without the slightest deceleration. Still, it was impossible to call, and for a split second in the adrenaline haze no one knew what had happened. Phelps, bent over the block, screaming like a banshee, looked up at the clock. His teammates Garrett Weber-Gale and Cullen Jones did the same. Every pair of eyes in the stadium took it in: The Americans had beaten the French by .08 of a second.
And then Phelps leaned back and roared, all clenched fists and tendons; all the joy and all the pain and all the relief distilled into one epic moment. Lezak had swum the fastest split in history, 46.06 seconds, almost seven-tenths faster than that of Bernard. The Americans had gouged four seconds out of the world record, lowering it from 3:12.23 to 3:08.24.
This was not just fast; this was a new definition of fast. And for swimming, the stakes have never been higher.
These are the nine days that Michael Phelps has been waiting for, planning for, training for; the Games in which he will likely become the most decorated Olympian in history. And in the weeks leading up to Beijing, the world had been waiting to watch it happen.
At 6:30 on Saturday evening the competition began: 894 swimmers from 162 countries, a global convention of V-shaped backs. There were battalions of coaches and squadrons of officials; legions of blue-shirted volunteers and a quartet of dancing mascots, all slipping around on the white-tile deck. There was a pair of petite Chinese girls perched side by side on lifeguard chairs ready to spring to the rescue, should it come to that. Every camera angle was manned, every press seat occupied. Some 11,000 people filled the stands as the heats of the men's 400-meter individual medley, the Games' first swimming event, hit the water.
In this first of the 17 races that he'll swim at these Games, Phelps set an Olympic record of 4.07.82. But that was only a teaser, an amuse-bouche of sport—more than 2.5 seconds slower than his world record of 4.05.25. During the next morning's finals Phelps shattered both, in a blazing 4.03.84.
Watching Phelps on the medal podium waving to his mother and President Bush, alternately moved to tears, joking with bronze medalist and close friend Ryan Lochte and laughing when the national anthem was suddenly cut short (apparently we are no longer the home of the brave), you'd never have known that he'd just put up the fastest time in history in a race that swimmers consider the ultimate in gut-churning pain. (Phelps himself admits that "the last 50 of a 400 IM, I'm thinking, Please, God, let me get to this wall.") Certainly you wouldn't guess that before the race Phelps had felt crummy, beset by what he called "cold chills." Rather, he looked invigorated. And if in the next day's 200 freestyle preliminaries he cruised through to the semifinals nearly three seconds off his world-record time, then ended those semis in uncharacteristic fourth place a day later, no one was really that concerned. For Michael Phelps, the real business is done in the finals.
Though Phelps tends to make winning look easy, even a single gold medal performance requires any number of stars to align. Take the process of tapering, of physically preparing not only to be able to win against the world's best but also to do it at exactly the right moment, at an event that occurs once every four years. This, as one might imagine, is diabolically complicated. "When you taper swimmers for a meet, it's like getting a haircut," says Bob Bowman, Phelps's coach of 12 years. "You never know if it's any good until it's too late." The competitor needs to be deeply rested but not so much that fitness is lost; loose, but with all of his edge. And there's no one-size-fits-all method: Everyone peaks differently. Phelps's ideal race preparation, for instance, might destroy another swimmer.
Before the rest can begin, however, maximum performance first demands maximum training—in other words, for the taper to work, there must be work from which to taper. In Phelps's regime, this is not a problem. Bowman has a Marquis de Sade knack for adding twists of difficulty to his workouts, things like hypoxic training, during which swimmers may turn their heads for air only at certain points during a lap. There are grueling sets of 30 x 100-meter repeats that require Phelps and his teammates to hoist themselves out of the pool at the 50-meter mark and then start the remaining 50—the butterfly—from the blocks. (Climbing out of the water over and over adds an extra aerobic component to a regimen that's already doing just fine in that department.) "It's horrible," Phelps says, shaking his head with distaste. "By number 20 you get out, you're holding on to the blocks, your head's spinning, you can't even standup."
"One of my favorite sets," Bowman says, with a mischievous lilt to his voice. Though his other passion is training thoroughbred racehorses, the coach admits that there isn't much crossover between humans and equines: "If we trained the horses like we did the people, we'd kill them."
Yet for all the emphasis on an athlete's body, a large part of Olympic success lies between the ears. By the time an Olympic swimmer emerges from the ready room and walks out on deck to stand behind his block, the equation is far more than physical. He's spelunking deep into his psyche, emptying his mind of all the clutter. He is singularly focused. "I try to go into my own little world," Phelps says. And though, like Phelps, a swimmer may be momentarily accompanied in that world by Young Jeezy or Jay Z, when the headphones come off, the only voice he's left with is the one inside his head. And that voice can be friend or enemy.
During the 4x100 final, for example, Lezak recalls, "I saw how far ahead [Bernard] was, and it crossed my mind for a split second: There's no way." But in the next instant he was able to scratch that and replace it with, "This is the Olympic Games. I'm representing the United States of America."
If Phelps entertains any self-doubt during races, it isn't apparent. "This is the thing I love the most," he says. "I love to race." But when Phelps talks about competing, his entire energy field changes. He morphs from laid-back dude into quietly ferocious predator. There is no braggadocio in this. It's simply the knowledge that his talk is firmly backed up by results, the same kind of certainty one would expect when hearing, for instance, Tiger Woods holding forth on chip shots.
"That's why I'd never let him go to a sports psychologist," Bowman says. "You don't want anybody messing with that."
Along with the physical, psychological and emotional considerations of swimming, toss in a few technological ones, which play an increasingly important role and which are at least partly responsible for the sport's constant parade of world records. High in the Water Cube, tucked under the rafters, you'll find the former South African world-record sprinter Jonty Skinner, now USA Swimming's performance science and technology director. While the Phelps camp likes to refer to Bowman as "the mad scientist," Skinner could also lay claim to that title.
"I'm looking at the race in terms of mathematics," he says, flanked by laptops. "How many strokes and how fast the strokes are, all about the turns, those kinds of things. Every meter in the pool is covered in terms of analysis." Camera feeds from above and below the water are also gathered, and all of this data is compiled and fed to the coaches and athletes in the warm-down area within 20 minutes of a race's completion. And then, Skinner adds, "we do a comprehensive blood analysis on them to look at what I would call the metabolic cost, the energetic cost of the performance as well as how they recover."
For Phelps, with his 17 races, recovery is key. Exertion creates lactic acid, the athletic equivalent of kryptonite, and there are perfectly legal ways to minimize its residency in the body. Longer warm-downs, for one. Three minutes after Phelps's race, or theoretically when lactic acid production is at its highest, someone will prick his ear with a needle and that blood will be measured to see how many millimoles of muscular waste must be cleared from his system. Phelps will then swim easily until the readings drop to an acceptable level.
"We're mapping him all the way," Skinner says. "With so many races, we really want to stay on top of things to make sure he's staying on track and not getting too fatigued."
Along with these ministrations, USA Swimming has also employed fluid-mechanics experts to examine how water is most efficiently shunted over the human body. Meanwhile, Speedo has invested millions in the development of the LZR Racer, an unprecedented, swing-for-the-fences bodysuit that has been credited with more than 50 world-record swims since its debut in February.
Tinkering with the angle at which the swimmers' fingers enter the water; computing the flow mechanics of an alternate head angle; charting glycogen levels; encasing the body in polyurethane: If it seems that nothing is being left to chance, that's because, really, nothing is. Though few things make Phelps crankier than asking him to tell you his goals (which are famously secret and known only to himself and Bowman), even the sloppiest back-of-the-envelope calculation makes it clear that by declaring eight golds as his ultimate challenge—a feat that was quickly moving from possible to probable after Phelps smashed yet another world record in the 200 freestyle on Tuesday morning—we are thinking small. This is Phelps's third Olympiad, and he's only 23. He could lose one or two or even three races in Beijing and still walk away with more career gold medals than not only Mark Spitz but also anyone, ever—and that's before you consider London in 2012, in which Phelps has said he would like to compete. "I just want to do things no one else has done," he says.
And if he doesn't realize all of his goals, whatever they might be? "He's the best ever in this sport," says Weber-Gale, his relay teammate. "Regardless of what happens."