BEIJING – He arrived here at this massive blue cube in the Far East with the goals that couldn’t have been bigger and margins of error that couldn’t have been smaller.
It was eight events, eight golds – all or nothing for Michael Phelps. In a perfect storm of athletic brilliance, otherworldly hype and a 17-swim, nine-day marathon of competition, Michael Phelps put together the most incredible Olympics ever.
On Sunday morning here, his powerful butterfly gave the Americans the lead in the 400-meter medley relay. Phelps then watched teammate Jason Lezak bring it home to give him a perfect eight-for-eight Beijing Games, surpassing Mark Spitz for most golds in one Olympics and doing what many thought was impossible.
“When someone says you can’t do something, it shows that anything is possible,” Phelps said. “When you put your mind to a certain thing, it can happen. The biggest thing is nothing is impossible. All it takes is an imagination.”
Over the last two weekends Phelps has changed the face of swimming. NBC ratings surged with his nightly heroics, fans flocked to all coverage of the sport and an athlete in a pool – not on a track, a balance beam or a basketball court – became the face of these games.
You didn’t need to even know how to swim to appreciate the greatness of Michael Phelps.
On Saturday night back in America, the Baltimore Ravens, Phelps’ hometown team, showed his eighth gold medal race on the stadium Jumbotron. It wasn’t simply something cool to do; it was born out of fear that fans would have left early or not shown up at all if the team didn’t.
Swimming in an NFL stadium?
“My big goal is to change the sport of swimming,” Phelps said.
Phelps is always looking for bigger and better goals, which is why embracing the eight golds here was so appealing to him. Athletically, he probably can’t do more. Phelps not only won them all but he was also a part of seven world records in the process.
Spitz’s mark stood 36 years and, considering the increased world competition in the sport, was considered unsurpassable until Phelps came along with a wing span three inches longer than his 6-foot-5 body.
“I really wanted to do something that no one’s ever done before in this sport,” Phelps said.
“The term ‘Spitzian feat’ may be outdated,” teammate Aaron Peirsol said. “It may now be ‘Phelpsian feat.’ ”
Phelps would make no such bold comment. Even as Spitz had taken some shots at him from afar and other swimmers had tried to get in his head with some comments, he carried himself with class and dignity.
If anything, he just wouldn’t lose his concentration. It wasn’t just his power and speed that made this happen, it was mental focus.
He didn’t just have to come to the pool each morning and swim faster than the rest of the world. He had to take the day-in, day-out grind of the competition. These nine days seemed endless, one more challenge after the other, no room for the slightest of slip-ups.
Meanwhile, everyone else ganged up on him. They all wanted to be the one to defeat Michael Phelps, so they geared up in their individual specialties, giving them their best for one day and then letting someone else take a shot at him the next.
“Everyone on the planet is trying to make him work, giving him obstacles,” said Milorad Cavic, the Californian who swam for Croatia.
Cavic came closest to defeating him, losing by one hundredth of a second in the 100-meter butterfly and forcing Phelps to make a dramatic and truly most last second of comebacks.
“It’s been nothing but an upward rollercoaster,” Phelps said. “It’s been nothing but fun.”
Michael Phelps of the United States goes to hug his mother Debbie, left, after the medal ceremony for men's 4x100-meter medley relay final during the swimming competitions in the National Aquatics Center at the Beijing 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Sunday, Aug. 17, 2008.
Michael Phelps of the United S…
AP - Aug 17, 12:31 am EDT
The truth was Phelps couldn’t lose here. He simply wouldn’t lose here.
Couple that duel with Cavic and the wild comeback in the 4x100 free relay, and Phelps didn’t just smash records and cruise to gold, he turned swimming into an edge-of-your-seat, must-watch event.
“The whole things, every race, one after the other from winning by one-hundredth of a second (Saturday) to finishing it off with a world record, it’s the most amazing experience and something I’ll have forever,” Phelps said.
Whether swimming really changes or not isn’t the issue. It was Phelps’ individual genius that was on display here, putting him in the discussion as the greatest Olympian of all time even as his career still has at least one more games to go.
When it’s all said and done, he could wind up with 20 gold medals in his career, a haul almost too big to comprehend.
That’s Phelps, though, always looking for more, always wondering what else could be accomplished.
By the time Lezak touched the pad here Sunday, the impossible had become possible. Phelps challenged the world, carried the weight of it on his shoulders and now, at last, Spitz’s gold standard was gone.
Victory and history in Beijing.
“I’m at a loss for words,” Phelps said.
They gave him another medal, cranked up a final “Star-Spangled Banner” and as he looked over at his mother and sisters in the crowd he finally did something new.
He broke down and cried.
Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.