My favorite venue at the Summer Olympics in Beijing was the Water Cube, especially at night, when its lights bathed the pathways in soft but colorful purple hues. But stuck inside for nine days, with hundreds of reporters crammed in the bowels of the building, it lost all charm. That was the prospect we all faced if Michael Phelps succeeded in his audacious chase of a record eight Olympic gold medals. Frankly, swimming has never been the sexiest of sports—and even less so now, with the athletes encased in those full-body Speedos. While Phelps may have been the greatest swimming machine in history, he remained a bland, though courteous, young man whose interview range didn't extend much beyond his eating and sleeping habits or, if he stretched, videogames.
So, to be honest, many of us on press row were hoping for an early loss to put an end to the Phelps Watch and spring us from the pool. There were other, more intriguing athletes beckoning—Kobe & Co. on the basketball court, balletic Nastia Liukin and bouncing Shawn Johnson in the gymnasium, Misty May Treanor and Kerri Walsh on the sand—as well as Great Walls to mount, ornamental chopsticks to haggle over and crispy ducks to devour.
But very quickly the Phelps story became more compelling than I ever could have imagined. In just his second final, the 4 x 100 freestyle relay, the United States appeared headed for silver (and me for the great outdoors)—until Jason Lezak did the impossible, swimming the fastest relay leg in history to catch the French from almost a full body length behind. Phelps had been conspicuously contained up to that point, as if he couldn't afford to squander a drop of energy on emotion. But he was jubilant in victory. There was a kismet quality in that moment, and notions of destiny are very seductive. As the week played out in serial fashion and Phelps delivered one electrifying swim after another, we were hooked. And we found ourselves pulling—I might even have been praying—for Phelps to prevail.
His seventh gold, featuring his own miracle finish to win the 100-meter butterfly by 0.01 seconds, left me awash in sweat and tears. And when it was finally over, with Phelps draped in eight gold medals, I couldn't find a trace of that callow young man—rather, a gracious champion who, like all of us, was overwhelmed by the magnitude of his achievement. And even amid the hordes in the Water Cube, I just felt privileged to be there, a witness to history.