The Monitor's View

Phelps the phenom

His Olympic wins are a triumph of imagination that physical limits can be broken.

Sports records don't usually fall this way. Beyond his numbers in Beijing – seven world records, the most gold medals in one Olympics (eight) – the porpoiselike human from Baltimore, Michael Phelps, also revived humanity's faith in progress by breaking through so many physical limits that once seemed impossible.

Along with his swimmates who helped him win in the relay races, Mr. Phelps broke Olympic barriers not just for the books or for his mother, not just to inspire other swimmers or win fans to his sport. Not even for the ages.

But for the imagination.

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His triumph isn't only of the will or an anatomically ideal body but of something else: a vision of something greater.

"With so many people saying it couldn't be done, all it takes is an imagination," he said. It is advice he freely gives, coming out of an awe-inspiring, aw-shucks modesty.

And he makes it all look so fun and easy that it compels other Olympians to realize they, too, can break records. If he could, Phelps would probably be the first earthling to race in the water newly discovered on Mars – simply because someone said it couldn't be done. And then he'd give the same arms-tense roar of triumph as after his Olympic wins.

Sure, competitive swimming has become faster since Mark Spitz won his seven golds in the 1972 Munich Games. High-tech suits repel water like duck feathers. Stroke techniques and physical training are much improved. And in Beijing's pool, waves of interference from fellow paddlers are reduced.

But even Spitz says Phelps may now be the greatest athlete of all time. This is based on the fact that swimming now draws a crowd of competitors larger and mightier than ever before. Phelps was up against men whose governments lavish millions of dollars on athletes to win medals for national honor. And in the 100-meter butterfly, he won by only 1/100th of a second – against a swimmer from the tiny country of Serbia.

But he won his gold medals by excelling in all four of swimming's strokes, and in 17 races ranging from 100 to 400 meters, and over just nine days.

He won even when his goggles suddenly leaked during one race and he had to guess where he was in the pool. He won despite having broken his wrist in December. He won even though a middle-school teacher told him he'd never be successful.

Phelps's modesty, of course, is a recognition that he couldn't have done this alone. From coaches to teammates to fans, credit must be given where credit is due. His tears during the final awards ceremony – during the playing of America's national anthem – may have been a sign of appreciation for a country that helped him see a dream and then fulfill it.

Most sports are a mix of individual and collective effort, driven by a common vision of breaking both personal limits and the records of past competitors. On Sunday, after his final win in Beijing, the world lifted Phelps up to the pantheon of sports greats.

But it was really lifting up the ideals of sport that heroes like Phelps inspire in others.

Progress in sports is as possible as it is in all of life, a fact that is as enduring as the gold in Phelps's many Olympic medals.

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