Sports

Your mission Mr. Phelps

As the unattainable makes way for the inevitable, as Michael Phelps continues to glide toward the first Figure Eight in Olympic history, it’s impossible not to follow along in his wake.

So many of us have stumbled into work red-eyed and sleep-deprived these last few mornings because of an inability to shut off the TV before midnight, because we’re afraid to miss another installment in Phelps’ swim toward the unprecedented. We have all been eager to grab a seat on a chaise lounge at the Michael Phelps pool party because its host has done everything but sprout gills and grow a dorsal fin since arriving in Beijing.

These were the numbers after Phelps’ Friday night appearance in the finals of the 100-meter butterfly.

Seven races.

Seven gold medals.

Six world records.

All in the previous six days.

“It might be once a century you see something like this,’’ Aaron Piersol, Phelps’ U.S. teammate, told reporters in China.

It’s impossible not to rub your eyes as you take it all in because what this 23-year-old version of Poseidon is so close to accomplishing should not happen. Just the other night, in the finals of the 200 intermediate medley, he left Hungarian Laszlo Cseh and U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte choking on his whitewater while churning out a world record time of 1:54.23. In a sport so often decided by hundredths of a second and fingertips at the wall, Phelps is beating the world’s elite swimmers by body lengths.

Suspend your disbelief, because Phelps is proving himself to be the best swimmer who ever lived even though he has yet to pass Mark Spitz, who set the old Olympic gold standard with seven medals at the 1972 Munich Games.

What we’re seeing this week, as we stay up well beyond our normal bedtimes, is an athlete whose most daunting competition comes in the form of the goals he sets for himself. His domination is unlike anything ever seen before in his sport and perhaps any other.

This is Lance Armstrong and his bicycle against the Alps. This is vintage Tiger Woods against Augusta National. This is a 20-something Michael Jordan in mid-air with tongue out, a basketball in his hands and the rim in dunking range.

What makes Phelps’ splash so big in comparison is the fact that he’s winning races and obliterating world records in such a compressed time frame. So often this week, he has hustled from the medal stand to the warm-up pool to the training room to a semifinal race in under an hour, a frenetic rush not unlike the costume changes at a Las Vegas show.

And then there are those numbers, the ones displayed in red on digital scoreboards and those counted in gold.

Phelps will leave Beijing with a higher medal count than some continents accumulate, but he collects them as if they’re cheap neck ties. If Phelps had a normal job like most of us, he would soon be able to wear a different one to the office every day for two weeks.

With 14 Olympic medals after Friday night’s final, he now stands alone atop Mount Olympus. In the category of career achievement, he’s threatening to leave the likes of Spitz, Carl Lewis, Soviet gymnast Larysa Latynina and Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi in the shallow end of the pool. Assuming he remains healthy and competes in the 2012 Summer Games in London at 27, he could push his medal count to an incomprehensible extreme.

As this great haul of China takes shape, there’s a rush to make sense of it all.

Is Phelps the most historically-significant Olympian of all time?

Not by a longshot.

That distinction would belong to Oakville, Ala., native Jesse Owens, who made a mockery of Hitler’s Aryan superiority theory by winning gold medals in the 100 and 200 meters, the 4 x 100 relay and the long jump at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

As for the issue of whether an eight gold medal haul would make Phelps the greatest Olympian of all time, the answer mirrors so many of his recent races.

It’s not even close.

In some ways, though, the sheer dominance of his work creates questions about its proper value. Because Phelps makes world records look so effortless, it’s tempting to assign some of the credit to the technology at his disposal.

It’s got to be the swimsuit, right?

If that was the case, then we could all dunk by putting on an old pair of Air Jordans. It’s true that the Speedo LZR suit Phelps wears reduces drag, but a number of his competitors are wearing the same gear while losing to him in such hopeless fashion.

No, Phelps exists as a testament to what can happen when good breeding meets grueling training. He can eat all the pizza, pasta and fast food he wants because his coach, Bob Bowman, puts him through workouts that ensure a 4,000-plus calorie burn.

Plus, there’s the good genetic fortune that factored into him becoming the perfect swimming machine. On land, Phelps may look ungainly with his size 14 feet, double-jointed ankles and knees and 80-inch wingspan. In the water, he’s as comfortable and every bit as graceful as a dolphin.

All of those elements have blended together seamlessly and treated us to something truly remarkable as Phelps continues to make waves in the Water Cube.

We’re no longer seeing an assault on history.

We’re witnessing a confirmation of immortality.

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