Phelps' "Great Haul Of China" Tops Sports

USA's Michael Phelps holds up his gold medal for the men's 200-meter individual medley final at the Beijing 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Friday, Aug. 15, 2008. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson) AP Photo/Paul Chiasson

Michael Phelps had just finished his work at the Water Cube, still wet but his place in history secure, when he walked up to his longtime coach.

"Good job," Bob Bowman said.

C'mon, coach, couldn't you come up with something a little more memorable? Didn't you have a "win one for the flipper" speech stashed away for such a momentous occasion?

"At that point, there was not much to say," Bowman recalled Monday when reached by phone, chuckling at the brevity of his comments on that August day in Beijing. "It had all been said."

Well, not quite.

The honors just keep on coming for the "Great Haul of China" - Phelps' feat has now been selected as the top sports story of the year by members of The Associated Press.

By taking down Mark Spitz's Holy Grail of records with eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, Phelps also was a runaway selection for AP's male athlete of the year. Only Olympic sprinting sensation Usain Bolt (five votes) and New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (four) got more than a single vote. Phelps was named on 172 ballots, becoming just the third swimmer to claim the award.

"Every single moment over there - whether it was winning a gold medal, swimming for my county, spending time with teammates - I had a blast," the 23-year-old Phelps told the AP recently.

He one-upped Spitz's mark from the 1972 Munich Games by winning five individual golds and serving on three relay teams that also touched first - and by breaking seven world records along the way. Not bad for someone who couldn't sit still in elementary school (he was eventually diagnosed with ADHD), a once-scrawny kid with big ears who was picked on mercilessly and prone to fits of whining and crying.

"Some of the accomplishments have sunk in, but some haven't," said Phelps, who followed Don Schollander in 1964 and Spitz in '72 as swimmers winning the AP's annual top male athlete award. "I've been on the road a lot and haven't had time to myself to really sit there and think about what really did happen this summer and this whole year."

Trust us, Michael, it was quite a ride.

Your wake included the New York Giants' upset of New England in the Super Bowl, which ruined the Patriots' perfect season but had to settle for second place in story-of-the-year voting. Tiger Woods' saga - season-ending surgery after a gutty U.S. Open playoff win - was third, followed by Brett Favre's on-again, off-again retirement and move to the New York Jets. The Boston Celtics' worst-to-first turnaround that ended with an NBA title over the rival Los Angeles Lakers took the fifth spot.

As with all great stories, the opening chapter laid the foundation.

Phelps was only 16 - an emerging stud in the pool but little known to the non-chlorine crowd - when he sat down at a table full of lawyers to discuss signing with an agent for the first time. He was wearing a baseball cap, probably tilted sideways. He sat through most of the meeting with that bored, distant look of his, seemingly unconcerned with such mundane matters as percentages and sponsorships.

Finally, Phelps was asked what he wanted out of this new relationship.

His answer, delivered without hesitation, showed a foresight beyond his years. He was seeking mainstream acceptance, for both himself and his sport. He saw no reason the world's greatest swimmer couldn't be part of the same exclusive club as guys such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.

"I want to be on SportsCenter," he told agent-to-be Peter Carlisle.

Mission accomplished - and then some. There's been countless magazine covers, enough TV appearances to qualify for his guild card (including a stint hosting the season premiere of "Saturday Night Live") and a quickie book just in time for the holiday buying season.

And, yes, he's even made the tabloids, the ultimate compliment in our celebrity obsessed culture though not always the most flattering coverage.

"I think the biggest change for him is just trying to adjust to the attention," Bowman said. "It's really been beyond anything we imagined."

How is Phelps handling everything from speculation about his girlfriend to his exploits on the late-night circuit?

"Overall, he's done pretty well," Bowman said. "He's learned a lot about how to handle himself. I think the hard part is handling all the people who come along with celebrity."

The pool is where he'll always be most comfortable. Phelps already has resumed light training and will get back into a full-time training routine shortly after the first of the year. He plans on swimming at one more Olympics before getting of with the rest of his life, and the 2012 London Games will give him a chance to put another of his records - winningest Olympian ever with 14 gold medals - totally out of reach for the foreseeable future.

On his way out of Beijing, Phelps hinted that he might try for eight more golds in England, though not the same grueling events. However he's apparently put the kibosh on that idea, as he revealed during yet another TV appearance this month on "The Colbert Report."

When asked about his plans for the London, Phelps said, "Hopefully I'll be there. I won't go for eight again."

Bowman is just fine with a scaling-back of the schedule and he's eager for Phelps to try out some new events, especially the backstroke.

"He's really good at it, but he never got to swim it a big event," the coach said.

After winning six gold and two bronze medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics, Phelps resumed his pursuit of Spitz's record in Beijing. At last year's world championships in Australia, he provided a tantalizing glimpse of what was to come by going seven-for-seven, beating several world records by absurdly large margins in a sport measured to the hundredth of a second.

Then again, the capricious nature of his pursuit also was exposed Down Under. He never got a chance to swim his final event - a relay the Americans were heavily favored to win - because a teammate got disqualified in the morning preliminaries while Phelps was resting up back at his hotel for the evening final.

With that in mind, no less an expert than Ian Thorpe predicted Phelps would win six or seven golds in China, but figured eight was probably beyond reach. There was so much that could go wrong, from another teammate messing up to a rival swimming the race of his life at just the right time.

"It's not at all because I thought Michael was incapable of doing it," the Thorpedo said. "There were just so many other factors that were going to influence the results rather than it just being Michael."

But all the stars aligned during nine magical days in Beijing.

The Americans looked beaten by the French in the 400 freestyle relay, but world record-holder Alain Bernard made a tactical mistake off the final flip. Jason Lezak was able to draft like a NASCAR racer and pull off the fastest relay leg ever, winning by eight-hundredths of a second.

Phelps appeared hopelessly behind in his final individual event, the 100 butterfly, but Milorad Cavic started his glide to the wall a little too soon and subtly lifted his head, which slowed him even more. Phelps, realizing he was behind, took an extra half-stroke and slammed the wall a hundredth of a second ahead - the smallest possible margin.

"I haven't been able to think in great detail about everything that's happened and what I've done," Phelps said. "Once I start getting back in the water and things settle down, I think I'll be able to look back on things and remember everything that happened and really be able to think about it and ponder it."

Looking ahead, Phelps will likely focus on three or four individual events, plus the relays. That would give him a chance to close his Olympic career with an even 20 gold medals.

Not too shabby.

"Anything he does from here on out is gravy," Bowman said. "He's earned the right to do it any way he wants to do it."
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