A hearty shout-out from the president, tears of joy rolling down his mother’s face, a final swim stroke that nearly cost him history, football fans who wouldn’t know a backstroke from sunstroke cheering wildly for him — these are the memories Olympic hero Michael Phelps carries with him from the Beijing Games.
Barely 30 hours after the 23-year-old Baltimore native etched himself in Olympic history with a record-breaking eighth gold medal by winning the 4x100 medley relay, an exhausted but wide-smiled Phelps sat down with Matt Lauer Monday to relive and recount an Olympic experience that saw him become a household name over eight amazing days.
“I’m just exhausted,” Phelps told Lauer from the TODAY set in Beijing. “I feel like I haven’t stopped moving for 10 days straight — but it’s been fun, this is an experience I’ve always dreamed of.”
After competing in 17 races in eight days — and swimming more than two miles in the process — Phelps is just now able to catch his breath and reflect on his Olympic experience. Standing atop those memories is making his way from Beijing’s Water Cube pool to the stands to embrace his emotional mother Debbie and sisters Whitney and Hillary after they watched wide-eyed as Michael ticked off one gold medal after another.
“We have these things called ‘DP moments,’ for Debbie Phelps moments,” a grinning Phelps told Lauer. “They’re on a scale of 1 to 10 — it’s how hard she cries and how calm she is. She hit a bunch of 10s this week in DP moments. I can’t tell you enough how amazing it was having them here supporting me.”
Early on during his historic Olympic run, Phelps found he had supporters in high places. When Phelps claimed his first gold on Aug. 10 in the 400 individual medley race, he looked from his pool lane and saw President George W. Bush staring straight at him.
“It was cool — he waved and then nodded and was waving the American flag,” Phelps said. “It was pretty neat to look up and see Mr. President cheering all of us on.
Phelps added the president phoned him shortly after the swimming sensation claimed his eighth gold medal offering congratulations and telling him, “Give your mom a hug and tell her the president sent it.”
While Phelps claimed the majority of his Olympic hardware by comfortable margins, it was the two close calls that remain foremost in his mind. Phelps watched agog as his teammate Jason Lezak needed an Olympic record time to best France’s Alan Bernard by a fingertip in the 4x100 freestyle relay.
“To watch Jason swim the fastest leg in history, and make up a body length in the last 50 meters, was just absolutely incredible,” Phelps told Lauer.
Phelps experienced an even closer call in the 100 butterfly when he bested Serbian Milorad Cavic by a blink-and-you-missed it 1/100th of a second. Phelps fell as far back as seventh place before a furious finish; replays later showed that Cavic appeared to be gliding toward the wall while Phelps barreled into it mid-stroke. Phelps told Lauer the exhilarating moments of the race remain a bit of a blur.
“I had no idea where we were — I mean, I knew we were all together,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was ahead, behind, whatever, and about 15-20 meters out, I was focused on hitting the wall perfectly, trying to have a good last stroke, and I when I took that last stroke I thought that cost me the race.”
Phelps had to look up at the Water Cube scoreboard to realize that he had won. “It was the perfect finish for a close race, and definitely does not get any better than that.”
As Phelps kept tunnel vision toward his goal of winning eight gold medals, he remained unaware of the frenzy he was causing in America. On Sunday morning’s TODAY show, Phelps was shown footage of his hometown Baltimore Ravens’ National Football League game, where fans stayed after the contest to whoop and holler as Phelps’ final race was shown on a big screen. He appeared near tears.
Reflecting a day later with Lauer, Phelps said, “It’s just incredible to think about, at a football game they’re showing a swimming race. It’s cool to have that support, to really hear about the sport growing.”
Indeed, promoting the sport of swimming is foremost on Phelps’ post-Olympic agenda. Phelps will miss the closing ceremonies in Beijing as he heads to Europe to make appearances as the sport’s unofficial ambassador. Phelps is likely to keep competitive swimming in the forefront with his fame and his continued quest in training for the 2012 London Olympics. His final hurdle is to best gymnast Larissa Latynina’s Olympic record of 18 career medals. Including the eight medals he picked up at the 2004 Athens Games, Phelps’ medal count stands at 16.
Still, it is just beginning to sink in with Michael that he is the only Olympian in modern history to ever win eight gold medals at an individual Olympics.
“I was in the little hotel room sitting with two of my friends, and I stood up and just didn’t say anything,” Phelps told Lauer. “They said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I said, ‘I did it, everything is done. I did it and it was fun.’ ”
Michael’s coach Bob Bowman, who discovered Phelps when he was just 11, also appeared on TODAY Monday, and expressed pride but little surprise at his charge’s record Olympics showing.
“I was just proud of Michael and how he handled himself through the whole thing,” Bowman said. “I wasn’t surprised, but I’d never seen him maintain that level of intensity through a whole program. He can handle anything — he’s Superman.”
Michael’s loving family also sat for an interview with TODAY’s Meredith Vieira, and told of a major disappointment Michael felt early in life for his sister Whitney that transformed the laid-back boy into the man the Chinese media call “The American Superfish.”
Big sisters Hillary and Whitney were competitive swimmers, and Whitney became the original competitive swimming star of the Phelps family — Michael, mom Debbie and Hillary sat dejected as Whitney just missed making the 1996 Olympic team during swim trials in Indianapolis, Ind.
Debbie Phelps told Vieira: “I remember sitting in Indianapolis with Hillary on one side and Michael on the other side and both of them saying, ‘What happened, Mom? Why did this occur?’ Because Michael saw his sisters as iconic. You know, they were the best.
“He was only 10. Nothing should go wrong. You know, you put a plan in place and it all should fall sequential. I think it really gave Michael a sense of reality. It was something we all embraced and worked through.”
As Debbie Phelps watched her son march ever closer to history in Beijing, she couldn’t help but see the boy who ate up the competition in his local meets.
“Watching Michael swim at 23 in Beijing was like watching him swim at 10 back in Baltimore,” Debbie told Vieira. “When Michael was at that age, he swam so far ahead of the field. And now, it’s like seeing the baby of the family coming on the platform of the world and performing the way he did when he was smaller.”
And his sisters couldn’t be more filled with pride.
“The most exciting thing was seeing him get so emotional, filled with happiness and say how much it meant to him having us there,” Hillary said. “It was great that we were able to experience it with him and support him.”