GOLD RUSH

At 7:52 p.m., 19-year-old Michael Phelps touched the wall after the 200-meter butterfly final last week, then looked up and found the familiar "1" next to his name on the scoreboard. He pumped his fist twice and climbed out of the water. He didn't smile. He didn't have time. A minute before 8, he got his earlobe pricked for a blood lactate test to determine how fast his fatigued muscles were recovering--an on-the-fly checkup. Next he hit the warm-down pool for 17 minutes, coasting about 1,200 meters to keep his muscles loose. He toweled off at 8:20, changed from his short-leg swimsuit to the long legs--a superstition--and re-emerged for the gold-medal ceremony. At 8:27, as Phelps waited behind the podium for his name to be announced, he did something we may never see again at the Olympics: he started stretching. In 13 minutes, Phelps had to get back in the pool for the lead leg of the 4x200m freestyle relay. He swam fast, handing off a big lead, and then watched nervously as relay anchor Klete Keller withstood a furious charge from Australian superstar Ian Thorpe to give the United States a heart-stopping win. This time Phelps went nuts. "I don't think I've ever celebrated like that in my entire life," he said afterward, a giant smile creasing his face like an accordion.

It was fitting that Phelps, the multitasking, multistroke medal machine, should derive so much more joy from a team victory than a personal one. The historic first week of the Olympics for the United States was repeatedly defined by perseverance of the mind and stoutness of soul--and not the ugly ego-tripping for which so many U.S. stars have been remembered. Start with gymnast Paul Hamm, flat on his back and dead to rights after a disastrous vault, believing he had ruined his dreams of a gold medal in the individual all-around. But he smothered his anguish and stormed back from 12th place to gold in just two rotations for the most stunning victory in gymnastics history. The next night Carly Patterson completed a first-ever gold-medal double for the United States, sticking to her floor routine to overcome Russia's Svetlana Khorkina in the all-around. (And don't look now, but even the much-maligned men's basketball team seems to be... nope, never mind, they just lost again.) But above all, there was Phelps, who needed just one week to secure a place in the pantheon of Olympic legends like Jesse Owens, Dorothy Hamill, Carl Lewis and, yes, Mark Spitz. That last name disappeared from the Phelps conversation unexpectedly early, as two bronze medals in his first three races put Spitz's seven-gold-medal feat out of reach.

It was the best thing to happen to Phelps all week. Free to write his own story, he came up with a doozy. His astonishing eight-medal total, including six golds and a pair of not-too-shabby bronzes, matched an Olympic record for most in a single Games. (Only Soviet gymnast Aleksandr Dityatin had done it before--at the U.S.-boycotted Moscow Games in 1980--and only three of his were gold.) "It'll sink in when he's 40," said his coach Bob Bowman. "He knows it's historic, but he doesn't know what history is yet." The Baltimore teenager entered these games as the next Mark Spitz. He'll leave them as the first Michael Phelps.

Before he exited, though, Phelps had one more trick up his sleeve, and it may be the one that comes to define his career. After wrapping up a week for the ages, he also proved himself to be the consummate teammate by withdrawing from his final race, the 400m medley relay, to give a demoralized friend one more shot at gold.

Ian Crocker, a quiet 21-year-old from Maine, was having a nightmarish time. Plagued by a sore throat, he bombed in the 400m freestyle relay and the 100m freestyle. He knew he had to win the 100 fly over Phelps on Friday to earn a slot in Saturday's medley relay final, and after 50 meters he had a commanding lead. But Phelps surged forward and caught Crocker at the wall, winning by four hundredths of a second--a fingernail. Crocker was heartbroken. But unbeknownst to him, Phelps approached Team USA men's coach Eddie Reese and offered up his spot on the relay. "We came here as a team," he explained later, "and we're going to leave here as a team." Cynics are already claiming that Phelps didn't make any real sacrifice because, by swimming the relay preliminary, he had ensured himself of whatever medal the final team gets. What Phelps did forfeit, though, was the opportunity to take a well-earned victory lap before a worldwide audience on the meet's final day. When he got out of the pool on Friday night after the 100 fly, no one in the arena knew he wouldn't get back in. Instead of leaving Athens in a shower of glory, he quietly exited stage right. And Crocker got his gold.

All week journalists scrutinized every glimpse of Phelps for signs that this otherworldly teenager was, in our merciless estimation, too cocky. We fixed upon the bulky earphones he always wore on the pool deck, which locked out the world and blasted Eminem into his skull to psyche him up before his races--even before the relays in which he was joined by three teammates. How rude! How selfish! (Wanna bet that they couldn't have cared less? That they wanted to win as badly as he did?) In fact, according to multiple sources, Phelps was a social gadfly during his rare moments of relaxation at the athletes' village. By mutual selection, he roomed with 2000 gold-medalist Lenny Krayzelberg, one of Team USA swimming's most adored and respected members, and the two chilled out by waging epic battles of Madden NFL 2005 on Phelps's PlayStation 2.

Mostly, though, he slept. And ate. "When he first got there," his agent Peter Carlisle told NEWSWEEK, "he called me and said, 'Peter, the village is awesome! You can get McDonald's 24 hours a day!' Every time I talk to him he's going through the food line saying, 'Can I get three more of those, please?' " At a farewell press conference late on Friday, a relieved Phelps looked smaller and younger than he had all week, almost like a normal 19-year-old. After seven days in which he'd swum 70,000 meters, about 45 miles, he was finally done. He sat on the dais without any of his gold medals--the only thing around his neck was his Olympic credential--and scarfed down a McDonald's apple pie. A reporter asked him what he planned to do on Saturday--his first day off in ages. What else? He would be back at the pool, this time cheering on Crocker and the rest of the relay team, the world's greatest swimmer adding his voice to the crowd as just another fan.

GOLD RUSH | News