It’s only fitting that Michael Phelps won a record-busting eight gold medals in a country where the number eight is revered for bringing good fortune. But for the strapping 6-foot-four superathlete whom the Chinese media dubbed “The American Superfish,” good fortune had little to do with his record run.
“I have seen a young man over four years with such determination, such passion, to be able to perform the way he wanted to here in China,” Michael’s beaming mother Debbie told Lester Holt and Jenna Wolfe from TODAY's Olympic set in Beijing Sunday. “There is not one word that can embrace everything he has done these past nine days at the very highest level.”
As for Michael, he found himself finally being able to catch his breath after hitting the pool at Beijing’s Water Cube for a muscle-flexing 17 races in nine days. When the 23-year-old Phelps and three teammates claimed the gold in the 4x100 medley relay late Saturday night U.S. time, he ended an amazing journey that saw him become the first competitor in the Olympics’ 122-year history to win eight medals at an individual Olympics, besting Mark Spitz’s seven medals in Munich in 1972.
But for Phelps, who is as aw-shucks unassuming outside the pool as he is back-breakingly competitive inside, putting his historical run in perspective is likely weeks, if not years, away. He admitted he can’t wait to leave Beijing and be reunited with his beloved bulldog Herman.
“I don’t think everything has hit me quite yet — it’s starting to more and more,” Phelps told Holt and Wolfe. “I’m just enjoying myself. This is a dream come true and I’m loving every minute of it.”
Phelps now joins the rarefied air of America’s most famous — and soon-to-be richest — sports heroes, and the fact that he did it on the international Olympics stage caused a rousing esprit de corps among Americans.
When TODAY showed footage of a crowd at a Baltimore Ravens football game in Michael’s hometown cheering wildly while his final race was shown on a big screen, the normally emotionally cool Phelps was visibly stirred watching the outburst of cheering. Other footage showing bar patrons around the country cheering for him and young would-be swimming champions saying they wanted to “be like Mike” drove the point home even further for Phelps.
Phelps — who earned $5 million in endorsements last year, and is sure to see that number shoot up into the stratosphere after his awe-inspiring Olympics run — still has to shake his head at being grouped with the likes of Michael Jordan, Carl Lewis and Tiger Woods among America’s biggest celebrity athletes.
“It’s an honor,” Phelps said. “Michael Jordan is a guy I always looked up to growing up and I still do, because what he did in the sport of basketball and he was so clutch in any situation. The same thing with Tiger, and Carl Lewis won nine Olympic gold medals. Being able to be in the category with those guys, it’s just an honor for me. I watched those guys compete and it’s just cool.”
True to his modest manner, Phelps was more enthusiastic talking about the teamwork involved in winning the three relay events than the five gold medals he took in individual races. Phelps cited as the most memorable race the August 10, 400-meter freestyle relay, when his teammate Jason Lezak came out of nowhere to close a seemingly insurmountable French lead to eke out a U.S. victory and hand Phelps the second of his gold medals in Beijing.
“After the first 50 I saw how far the French were ahead and I was like, ‘Woah, this is going to be tough,’ ” Phelps told Holt and Wolfe. “Jason started moving the last 15 meters and was closing more and more and more and that’s when we started going nuts and just cheering, and you can tell afterwards all of our emotions just came out of us. We were yelling and screaming, fists in the air, it was emotional and a lot of fun.”
No such dramatics were needed for the U.S. team to claim the 4x100 medley that earned Phelps his record-breaking eighth gold — after winning, the team broke into a huddle for several moments before taking the winner’s stand, and Phelps revealed what was said.
“The guys congratulated me and they said, ‘We’re part of history,’ ” Phelps told TODAY. “After that I started getting a little choked up. I told them, ‘Without the help from you guys, none of this would be possible, so I just want to personally thank you guys for all the help you have given me over the past week, and it’s an honor to be part of this team.’ ”
While Phelps looked to his teammates for camaraderie and inspiration during his record run, he’s realizing the attention is on him for the foreseeable future. But the man who counts his MP3 player full of his favorite hip-hop songs as his prized possession doesn’t think the bright spotlight is liable to change who he is.
“I still see myself as a normal kid,’’ Phelps said. “I’m doing something that I love to do, that I’ve dreamed of doing, and I am still the person who loves to sit and play video games and I miss my dog — I can’t wait to see my dog!”
Earlier Sunday, Phelps showed his laid-back style in telling NBC’s Bob Costas, “I was able to probably have the best week of my life.”
What’s next for Phelps? The man is already the most decorated Olympic athlete ever — with the six gold and two bronze medals he claimed in Athens in 2004, his medal count stands at 16. And while Phelps has not stated definitively he will compete in the 2012 Olympic Games in London — when he will be 27 — he did give a big hint in talking about his performance in the 200-fly with Holt and Wolfe. Phelps claimed a gold medal in the event, but believes he didn’t do his best.
“I’m not complaining by any means, but I think I can go faster, and that’s something I’m going to work on over the next four years.”
Still, for at least the near future, chlorine won’t be hitting Phelps’ skin. He told Holt and Wolfe, “I’m taking a break. I’m not going to be in the swimming pool for a little bit. I’m taking some time off and going to relax and take some vacation.”