Nation & World

Phelps: Greatest Olympian you'll ever see

BEIJING - It looks like he's actually going to do it.

Michael Phelps - the most amazing Olympian any of us will see in our lifetimes - appears set to win eight gold medals at these Olympic Games.

Phelps is 5-for-5 already. There have been some very close calls, including those water-filled goggles in the 200 butterfly that didn't allow him to see where he was going. And there was that classic comeback in the 4x100 relay, where a clutch anchor leg from Jason Lezak saved the U.S. from near-certain silver.

So Phelps just keeps going. A high-school friend of Phelps sent him a text message just before gold medal No. 4.

Referring to the fact that Phelps practically has his own miniseries on NBC this week, the friend wrote: "How many times do I have to see your ugly face?"

A lot more through this weekend, unless you want to have a personal news blackout. And rightly so. What Phelps has done here eclipses everything else in the land of five rings. In the space of an hour Wednesday morning in Beijing, Tuesday night in the U.S., Phelps won the 10th and 11th gold medals of his career. That set an Olympic record for most gold medals by an individual.

"That's a pretty cool title," Phelps said.

Then later he insisted: "I'm not unbeatable. No one is unbeatable."

But it seems that way. Phelps has three events left here - two challenging individual events and a relay the U.S. should win with relative ease.

I didn't think Phelps would win all eight golds at the beginning of these Games. Even when you are the Tiger Woods of swimming, too many things can go wrong when you're swimming that many events and relying on that many relay teammates. A couple of those things did go wrong in Athens, Greece, where Phelps hauled in six golds and two bronze medals but couldn't quite catch the 8-for-8 octopus.

Phelps' personal coach, Bob Bowman, remains very worried about these final three. In terms of the United States TV market, Phelps didn't have a final Wednesday night but is scheduled to have one apiece tonight, Friday and Saturday night.

"I'm scared," Bowman said. "But that's my job."

Bowman and Phelps have been together for all 11 of these gold medals. Bowman is superb at getting the most out of Phelps, but he knows where the true talent in this partnership lies. He likens coaching Phelps to training Secretariat.

Most of the athletes here seem awed by Phelps. Said Ryan Lochte, probably the second-best U.S. male swimmer: "It's amazing to swim in the same pool with him. Every time he steps up, a record goes down."

And it's not just the swimmers. A couple of reporters were talking to Carlos Boozer at these Olympics. Boozer is a former Duke star and now a member of the U.S. men's basketball team, a rock-star group that gets asked to pose for pictures and sign autographs everywhere it goes in Beijing.

The question was about which athlete best symbolized these Games for the U.S., as Yao Ming does for China.

"Michael Phelps," Boozer said. "The guy is phenomenal."

Even under stress, Phelps performs. When one of his goggles filled up with water midway through the 200 butterfly, Phelps knew he had a problem.

"But I knew there was nothing I could do," he said. "I couldn't see. I just had to swim."

This isn't the end for Phelps. At 23, he plans to keep going for at least one more Olympics, in London in 2012.

Phelps can't possibly be better there than he is here, though. What we are seeing right now is an extraordinary athlete at the peak of his powers.

Enjoy him.