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There's none like him

8/14/2004

ATHENS, Greece -- Wow.

Michael Phelps turned in a performance of a generation -- in any other generation -- by obliterating the field in a world record 4:08:26 in Saturday's 400 individual medley final. The rout earned Phelps America's first 2004 gold medal. If he takes seven golds and earns his $1 million Speedo bonus, tonight's effort will be worth a cool $142,857.14. (That's $576.04 per second.)

How dominating was it? Phelps was halfway through his final leg as the last place swimmer was making his final turn. If it were some other swimmer, this type of blowout would qualify as one of the biggest stories of the Games. Instead, it's Phelps' over-before-it-started usual. Phelps spent Friday night watching Miracle instead of the Opening Ceremonies, but this win was all but pre-ordained. One U.S. swim official confessed to spending the last half of the race watching the battle for second.

Erik Vendt's thrilling and inspiring silver medal performance might end up being as much of a story as what the gold medalist did. Most expected Laszlo Cseh to challenge Phelps.
But Phelps' race was downright Ruthian. We have forgotten over decades that the Babe was the first major leaguer to hit 30, 40, 50 and 60 home runs. We've forgotten that Ruth won 18 games as a pitcher in his first full season and led the league with a 1.75 ERA in his second year.

Phelps' ownership of the 400 IM is similar. He crushed all comers in all four of the medley disciplines -- butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. In his lifetime, the 400 IM world record has been broken only 11 times. Phelps has broken it on five of those occasions. The record was only bested once between 1991 and 2000, by American Tom Dolan in 1994. Phelps has broken it five times in the past two years. He is the only human to ever swim the event faster than 4:10, and the only human ever to swim it faster than 4:09. He is closer to 4:08 than his nearest competitor is to 4:10. Saturday's record would likely stand for a decade if Phelps decided to retire tomorrow.

But it won't, because he won't. Phelps, 19, has changed the definition of swimming greatness so much and so soon that all perspective has been lost.

Even by Phelps himself. He admitted Saturday's win was "one of the most emotional swims I've ever had." But he seemed just as excited about Vendt's silver as his own first gold. When asked about his evening immediately after the race, he simply said, "one down, six to go."

Only six? Don't be so sure.

Eric Adelson is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.