Commentary

It's over, there are no arguments … Phelps is the best ever

Updated: August 13, 2008, 5:10 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

BEIJING -- Grab some bench, Carl Lewis.

Turn in your leotard, Nadia Comaneci.

Thanks for the memories, Jesse Owens.

And see ya later, Mark Spitz. Here's a hankie. Now stop crying about nobody flying your smug self over here. History is unfolding just fine without you.

You all had a nice run as the greatest of Olympians, but it's over. You have been replaced on the throne by Michael Phelps. No disgrace being shoved off Mount Olympus by Poseidon in a Speedo.

Before diving into the Water Cube pool Wednesday morning, Phelps got a text message from a high school friend. It said, "Time to be the best ever."

The time was now. History was here. Phelps easily won the 10th and 11th gold medals of his career, the most in Olympic annals.

For a moment, the quest to win a great eight gold medals in a single Games was placed on hold to appreciate the bigger picture, the lifetime body of work. From a child who struggled with ADHD growing up to the golden god of international sport, it's been an incredible 23-year journey.

"To be the most decorated Olympian of all time, it just sounds weird saying it," Phelps said. "I have absolutely nothing to say. I'm speechless."

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Let the medals do the talking. He'll hit 14 golds by the end of this blistering swim meet, and accomplish the great eight along the way.

It's going to happen. The next two races (the 200-meter individual medley and the 100 butterfly) will be his toughest, thanks to teammates Ryan Lochte and Ian Crocker. But there is no beating the man. His arrival at the wall first is as inevitable as Beijing smog.

Phelps' riveting brilliance is why he has become must-see TV in America. It's why Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and their American basketball teammates showed up at the Cube on Wednesday to watch Phelps race. His brilliance has spilled outside the pool and into all other Olympic venues.

He's not just the greatest athlete in Beijing, and he's not just the greatest swimmer ever.

He's the greatest Olympian ever.

"There's nobody in any sport that can win like he wins," declared American men's swimming coach Eddie Reese. "He's not just winning, he's crunching world records and crunching the field."

Not even a leaky pair of goggles could stop the Phelps Crunch on Wednesday morning -- and a leaky pair of goggles is the height of irritation for a swimmer. It's like running a marathon with your shoes untied. It's worse than wearing no goggles -- and Phelps gladly would have ripped the goggles off and gone without, but they were kept in place by two swim caps.

"I knew there was nothing I could do," Phelps said. "I could just swim."

Michael Phelps
Mark Dadswell/Getty ImagesMichael Phelps won his 10th and 11th career golds Wednesday to become the most decorated gold medalist in Olympic history.

Yeah. He could just swim the 200 butterfly faster than anyone ever has before. He broke his own world record by six-hundredths of a second. Broke it while swimming with a Dixie cup full of water sloshing against each eye, guessing where the walls were on the turns.

"I was more or less just counting strokes," he said.

This was world record by feel, not by sight. Only Michael Phelps does this.

"Just think how fast that would have been," Reese mused. "We were looking for an amazingly fast swim, the way he'd swam in prelims and semifinals -- at least a second better than that."

Phelps was visibly angry with his lousy world record when he got out of the pool. An hour later, he was back in the water and ready to take out his aggravation in the 4x200 freestyle relay. He swam the fastest lead leg ever in that event, threatening the 200 free world record he set a day earlier, and helping the Americans smash the world mark by nearly five seconds.

Phelps' consistency can become almost anesthetizing -- so consistently good that you become numb to it. But the Water Cube housed the proof Wednesday that living up to incredibly high standards isn't always easy. The proof was fellow Baltimore product Katie Hoff.

She came into these Olympics favored to win five individual medals, at least a couple of them gold. So far, she has two medals in four events, one silver and one bronze. Hoff missed the podium twice Wednesday, finishing fourth in the 200 freestyle and 200 individual medley.

That should only sharpen the admiration for what Phelps has done.

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"We've got to appreciate what happens when it happens," Reese said. "But that's not just with swimming, we do that with everything. If we lived in the Taj Mahal, after six months, it would be home."

Phelps has made the top step of the podium his home, leaving those witnessing his greatness to struggle for the proper superlatives. The man who stands above all other Olympians has provoked awe in those beneath him.

The view from three-time gold medalist Pablo Morales, now the head coach at Nebraska: "He sort of defies description because, in my opinion, there is no historical precedent for what he has accomplished, how he is accomplishing it, his body of work thus far. You have at once a supremely gifted athlete with a willingness to endure unmatched levels of preparation. On top of this, he is a fantastic competitor, very mentally tough, and he appears thus far to get even better in the face of a tough challenge."

The view from 200 butterfly gold medalist Melvin Stewart, who was blown away by the versatility Phelps showed by swimming what at the time was the third-fastest 100 freestyle ever in the lead leg of the 4x100 freestyle relay: "It's good to see Kobe Bryant is there to see the greatest athlete in the world. If Kobe goes out and wins a gold medal in badminton, that's what it's like to see this guy win the 200 fly and swim that leg in the 400 free."

The view from British freestyler Simon Burnett, as told to Reese at the Olympic Village cafeteria: "He's not from another planet. He's from the future, and his father sent him back in a time machine. Sixty years from now, he's only an average swimmer, but he's sent him back here to mop up."

The view from four-time gold medalist Inge de Bruijn, who is in Beijing as a Dutch television analyst: "He's so young, and yet so experienced and so clever. He's the man. He's my No. 1 favorite.

"The expectations are so high, but he puts it high for himself. You come in as the world-record holder, but still you've got to prove it. It is the moment sublime, the moment of truth. He is always ready. I really, really hope he's going to get the eight."

For a day, at least, the eight could wait. For a day, it was enough for Michael Phelps to be the greatest Olympian of all time.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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