Phelps: 'Greatest Olympian? It's a pretty neat title'
Michael Phelps is out on his own as an Olympic gold medal winner after winning his 10th and 11th in the pool yesterday. Nick Harris reports from Beijing, where the 'Baltimore Bullet' has proved himself a sportsman for the ages
It is probably now safe to say that the kids at school who bullied Michael Fred Phelps for having big ears did not have the last laugh.
Two more golden swims at these Games yesterday, in two more world record times, took Phelps' tally of both gold medals and record winning times here to five. And in reaching a career total of 11 Olympic gold medals – he won six in Athens in 2004 – the American has cemented his place as a swimmer, and sportsman, for the ages.
Nobody else has ever won more than nine golds, in any sport. Phelps went two better yesterday by triumphing in the 200 metres butterfly and then as the pacesetter in the 4x200m freestyle relay.
The 23-year-old "Baltimore Bullet" has overtaken Carl Lewis, Mark Spitz, the Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi and the Soviet gymnast Larysa Latynina, who all got close to double figures, but not quite there.
Phelps is now on a completely different plane to anyone else. And up there, as a contender at least, for the title of greatest Olympian of all time.
He has not finished yet. Assuming no random ill fate befalls the 6ft 4in Marylander, he will go for a sixth gold medal tomorrow in the 200m individual medley. And he will win it.
Then on Saturday, in what will be his toughest test, he will go for gold No 7. That will be in the 100m butterfly, where his compatriot Ian Crocker – the world record holder over the distance – will provide a stiff challenge. There could be fireworks.
If Phelps has already won a sixth gold before that butterfly race begins, then Saturday morning will be a million-dollar swim, literally. Phelps' swimsuit-maker, Speedo, long ago offered him a $1m (£536,000) bonus if he could win seven or more golds in one Olympic Games. All that any observer here can say is that he looks a million bucks.
Yet even a magnificent seven is not really what Phelps wants. Eight would be truly great, and if tomorrow and Saturday are negotiated as planned, then the final action in the Water Cube pool will provide Phelps with the chance to annexe himself another little chunk of history.
Spitz's seven gold swimming medals at one Games remains, for now, the record. And what a record it is. Spitz clocked world records in every gold-winning race. But if Phelps can maintain the extraordinary level of performance he has already shown, anything is possible.
It is not just his lugholes that set him apart. Nor that unusually long torso and relatively short legs, which provide less resistance in the water. His freakish physical genius is matched by an application to his work – race, eat, sleep, repeat – so rigidly focused that it borders on the afflicted.
He won the 200m butterfly yesterday in a world record 1min 52.03sec, despite his goggles filling up with water so he could not see. Water blindness could not prevent him bettering his own record by 0.06 seconds. "I had difficulty seeing the walls," he said. "I wanted a world record. I wanted a 1min 51seconds or better but under the circumstances, it's not a bad result."
Not bad, Mike. Better next time, eh?
He then swam the first leg of the 4x200m in 1min 43.31sec to hand his United States team a remarkable lead of 2.64 seconds at the first changeover. Seeing Phelps a body length ahead of his nearest challenger as he began his final 50 metres was to witness the bludgeoning of strong rivals into submission.
Phelps' team-mate Ryan Lochte extended the advantage in the next leg, and Ricky Berens and Peter Vanderkaay were able to nurse the race home. Rather quickly, it has to be said. On the poolside monitors, a moving line indicates the pre-race world record mark. Yesterday, lagging far behind the men of the US, you could almost imagine the line screaming: "Oi! Come back!"
The Americans pulverised their own record, set at the World Championships last year, by more than five seconds, to finish ahead of Russia and Australia in a time of 6min 58.56sec, the first sub-seven-minute swim in history.
Of his achievement of 11 career golds, Phelps said: "I'm almost at a loss for words. To be the most decorated Olympian of all time, it just sounds weird. I am speechless. It started to sink in after the butterfly. I was trying to focus on my next race, but I kept thinking 'Wow. Greatest Olympian of all time.' It's a pretty neat title and I'm definitely honoured. An Olympic gold medal stays with you for ever. It never gets old, listening to your national anthem with a gold medal around your neck."
Three more times he could hear it in China. If he does then a 14-9 supremacy over his closest rivals in the race for Olympic golds would be quite incredible.
To put that in some context, the 11 Games golds Phelps has won already since 2004 comprehensively outdoes the six that Britain as a nation has won in the pool in the last 70 years.
The GB foursome in the 4x200m relay yesterday finished sixth, setting a new British record of 7min 5.92sec. With the United States' new best, the Brits are further behind the Americans now than before the Games.
Britain's women's 4x200m relay team fared worse than the men, failing last night even to reach this morning's final. A podium place had been hoped for, but a poor swim dashed that.
World records fell aplenty to other nations. Federica Pellegrini of Italy won the 200m freestyle in record time. Britain's Caitlin McClatchey was sixth. Stephanie Rice of Australia set a world record in winning the 200m medley. France's Alain Bernard and Australia's Eamon Sullivan traded world records in consecutive 100m freestyle semis.
And then there was Phelps. Michael Fred Phelps. We may hear more of him.
King across the water: Michael Phelps' Olympic checklist and his rivals for supremacy
400m individual medley 4.08.26 (world record)
100m butterfly 51.25 (Olympic record)
200m butterfly 1.54.04 (Olympic record)
200m individual medley 1.56.14 (Olympic record)
4x200m freestyle relay 7.07.33 (national record)
4x100m medley relay 3.30.68 9 (world record)
400m individual medley 4.03.84 (world record)
4x100m freestyle relay 3.08.42 (world record)
200m freestyle 1.42.96 (world record)
200m butterfly 1.52.03 (world record)
4x200m freestyle 6.58.56 (world record)
200m individual medley (tomorrow)
100m butterfly (Saturday)
4x100m relay (Sunday)
Top 11 Olympic Gold Medallists
Michael Phelps (US) Swimming (2004, 08) 11 Golds
Paavo Nurmi (FIN) Long-distance running (1920, 24, 28) 9
Larysa Latynina (USSR) Gymnastics (1956, 60, 64) 9
Mark Spitz (US) Swimming (1968, 72) 9
Carl Lewis (US) Track & Field (1984, 88, 92, 96) 9
Bjorn Daehlie (NOR) Cross-country skiing (1992, 98) 8
Birgit Fischer (GDR/GER) Canoeing (flatwater) (1980, 88, 92, 96, 00, 04) 8
Sawao Kato (JAPAN) Gymnastics (1968, 72, 76) 8
Jenny Thompson (US) Swimming (1992, 2000) 8
Matt Biondi (US) Swimming (1984, 88, 92) 8
Ray Ewry (US) (Track & Field (1900, 04, 08) 8