Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Summer 2008 [Print without images]

Sunday, August 17, 2008
How can one not be won over by Phelps' feat?

By Jim Caple
ESPN.com

BEIJING -- Mark Spitz, meet Roger Maris. And say hello to Bob Beamon while you're at it.

I was 10 years old the summer Spitz won seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Games, and I still vividly remember getting the news of his latest races in Munich. For 36 years, those seven golds loomed as one of the few true magic numbers in sports, like Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, Ted Williams' .406 batting average and Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game. Spitz's mark was so special that a little part of me wanted Michael Phelps to fail in his quest to surpass him. But I soon was swept up pulling for Phelps to break the record just as everyone else was.

And Sunday he did, replacing Spitz's seven on sports' ever-changing ledger with an eight that will mean as much to current kids as Spitz's number meant to me.

"The term 'Spitzian feat' might be outdated now," U.S. teammate Aaron Peirsol said. "It might be 'Phelpsian feat.' By the way, I just coined that."

Thanks, Aaron. The royalty checks are in the mail.

Sports is filled with hyperbole, but rarely does the moment live up to the hype. (Jets fans will know what I mean by the first week of October.) This did. Without actually saying the words, without raising eight fingers the first day he pulled down his goggles and leaned over a starting block, Phelps made it clear that he planned to win eight gold medals at the Olympics, and that is exactly what he did. We don't often see anyone in any endeavor set out to achieve and then pull it off. We don't often see someone come along and fulfill our most unrealistic expectations. Tiger Woods did. LeBron James did. And now Phelps has.

"Today," said the usually stoic, reserved Chinese moderator at Phelps' first mini-news conference, "we are lucky to see the birth of a legend."

Imagine how frustrating it would be to be a swimmer who is the same age as Phelps and competes in the same events. Phelps began swimming in the Olympics in Sydney, began winning in Athens and plans to continue competing at least through London. It would be like coming up as a shortstop in the Yankees system in 1996.

Can any young swimmer surpass Phelps? Perhaps. After all, Peirsol said, Spitz came along in 1972 and Phelps came along now. And although the competition is much deeper than it was in Spitz's day, swimmers from Zimbabwe and Serbia won medals here, even if they live and train in America.

"Records are always made to be broken no matter what they are. Anybody can do anything they set their mind to," Phelps said. "I've said it all along, 'I want to be the first Michael Phelps, not the second Mark Spitz.' Never once will I ever downplay his accomplishment and what he did. It's still an amazing feat and will always be an amazing accomplishment in the swimming world and the Olympics.

"To have something like that to shoot for, it made those days when you were tired and didn't want to be [at practice] and just wanted to go home and sleep, it made those days easier to be able to look at him and say, 'I want to do this.' It's something that I've wanted to do, and I'm thankful for having him do what he did."

In other words, Spitz both set the standard and helped provide the means to break it.

Asked what effect he wanted his performance to have on swimming, Phelps replied, "I don't want this sport to be a once-every-four-years sport. Yeah, we get a lot of attention every four years, but in between those four years, there is really not as much exposure for us as I would like. … But we swim every single day of the year. There's never really an offseason. There's an offseason every four years, right after the Olympics. I just want people to get more involved in the sport and be aware of what we're doing. I really think it's going to happen."

Well, Phelps didn't achieve what he did by setting his expectations low, but he's taking on a task even more challenging than eight gold medals.

We won't be watching a lot of swimming on TV in the next three years or seeing many fantasy swimming drafts. But we will see a surge in swimmers who will try out for the swim team this school year, all of them stoked to be the next Michael Phelps, or, more accurately, the first someone whose name we'll eventually learn.

And if that someone matches or breaks Phelps' record, it will be his own damn fault for inspiring a new generation of swimmers across the map.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.