There's none like him

Updated: August 14, 2004, 7:38 PM ET
By Eric Adelson | ESPN The Magazine

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.)

Michael Phelps
Just how fast? Michael Phelps is the only human ever to swim the 400 IM faster than 4:09.
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.

PHELPS' MEDAL COUNT
Event Result Time What happened Eric's pick
400 IM final Gold WR 4:08:26 Phelps won the United States' first gold medal of the 2004 Olympics. Gold
4 x 100 relay final 3:14:62 Bronze The Americans and Aussies both came in behind the South Africans. Phelps can still tie Mark Spitz for seven medals but cannot break the record. Gold
WHAT'S NEXT
Event Day Time On TV Analysis Pick
Monday 200 free final 12:16 p.m. 12:30 p.m., NBC A once-in-a-generation race. What are the chances Phelps can outswim Ian Thorpe, Graham Hackett and Pieter van den Hoogenband? Pretty decent, actually. If this event came later, Phelps would have less chance. But it doesn't. Gold
Tuesday 200-meter fly final 12:48 p.m. 3 p.m., NBC Pick: Not even close. Gold
Tuesday 4x200 free relay final 1:46 p.m. 3 p.m., NBC The Americans were embarrassed by the Aussies in this event in 2000. Don't expect it to happen again. Gold
Thursday 200 IM final 12:54 p.m. 8 p.m., NBC Pick: Another lock. Gold
Aug. 20 100 fly final 12:09 p.m. 8 p.m., NBC Phelps could set a WR and still lose. Crocker is on fire, and good enough to break 50 seconds. Silver
Aug. 21 4x100 medley relay final 12:14 p.m. 8 p.m., NBC This will be like the Belmont -- either unforgettable or completely anticlimactic. Let's go with unforgettable. Gold
*All times Eastern; **Subject to change

Eric Adelson | email

ESPN The Magazine
Eric Adelson was a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

ALSO SEE