Michael Phelps went a perfect 8-for-8 in Beijing, breaking Mark Spitz's single-Games record of seven gold medals. He swam 17 times over nine days and broke the world record in four of his five individual swims. His three relay teams also set world marks.
"It might be once in a century you see something like this," teammate Aaron Peirsol said. "He's not just winning, he's absolutely destroying everything. It's awesome to watch."
In his first final, on Aug. 10, Phelps won the 400m IM in 4:03.86, more than a second faster than the record he set a month earlier at Olympic Trials. The next day, Phelps and the U.S. team squeaked out a win in the 4x100m freestyle relay. Phelps' leadoff leg of 47.51 was an American record, but anchor Jason Lezak dove in with more than a half-second deficit. Lezak posted the fastest relay split in history, 46.06, to catch Frenchman Alain Bernard for the win, by just .08 of a second.
Phelps easily won the 200m free, for his third gold in Beijing and his record-tying ninth career gold. But he wasn't tied for long, as the next morning, Phelps won two more gold medals: first, in the 200m butterfly, where the race was tighter than expected. But the only race in the 4x200m freestyle relay was for second, as the U.S. men, with Phelps leading off, broke the record by more than four seconds and beat the field by more than five. Phelps won his sixth gold with a dominating performance in the 200m IM, lowering his world record to 1:54.23.
His seventh gold was by the absolute slimmest of margins, .01 in the 100m butterfly. Phelps (right) appeared to trail Milorad Cavic (left) but his half stroke beat out Cavic's glide to the wall by a nail.
Phelps swam the butterfly leg of the 4x100m medley relay in the final event of the Beijing Olympic swimming competition. He left the blocks with his team third but gave the lead to Jason Lezak, who closed out the victory.
At first glance, Phelps might look like a typical swimmer. But several of his physical characteristics seem genetically tailored for swimming. His 6-foot-7-inch wingspan is three inches longer than his height, providing him with unusual reach. His torso is long compared to his legs, enabling him to ride high on the water. And his flexible ankles, combined with size-14 feet, allow for a powerful kick. Add to that more than a decade of high-intensity training, and you get one of the fastest swimmers in history.
International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge called him simply "the icon of the games."
Phelps' feats have drawn banner headlines across the world, including in regions and countries where swimming normally gets scant attention, with newspapers and commentators tripping over each other for superlatives and nicknames:
Dubbed the "flying fish" or the "American superfish" by Chinese media.
"The barracuda from Baltimore," said Chile's largest newspaper, El Mercurio.
"The New Olympic Legend," blared Egypt's El Badeel.
"The American dolphin," wrote Spain's El Pais.
"The God of Olympia," intoned France's Nouvel Nouvel Observateur.
"The water man from another planet," hailed Denmark's Berligske Tidende.
"He doesn't swim - he flies," said the sports daily Ole in Argentina.
"The champion who swims in his own galaxy," wrote The Australian, a national broadsheet.