Michael Phelps powered to the wall and whipped around to get his time, so eager to see another amazing set of numbers that he bumped his head on the end of the pool.
Not that he felt any pain.
With President Bush cheering him on, Phelps dominated his first event of the Beijing Olympics on Sunday morning, crushing his own world record and all hopes of his challengers with a mark of 4 minutes, 3.84 seconds in the 400-meter individual medley.
One down, seven to go in Phelps’ quest to break Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals.
“I’m not downplaying this race by any means, but I have to put that race behind me,” Phelps said. “I have to act like it never happened because I have so many tough races ahead of me.”
This was supposed to be one of the toughest, especially after fellow American and good friend Ryan Lochte matched Phelps stroke for stroke at the U.S. Olympic trials just over a month ago. Both went under the previous world record in the 400 IM then, with Phelps touching first in 4:05.25.
But Phelps beat Lochte when it really mattered. Laszlo Cseh of Hungary took the silver in 4:06.16, while Lochte faded to third in 4:08.09 — more than 4 seconds behind.
“Going into the last 50 and looking to my right and seeing that I was ahead of Ryan and Laszlo, I sort of started smiling,” Phelps said.
He didn’t even know he bumped his head.
“If I did, I didn’t feel it,” he said.
After spotting his time, Phelps pumped both arms in the air, and quickly spotted his mother and two sisters in the massive stands at the Water Cube. He then looked the other way, where Bush was waving his American flag, accompanied by the first lady, their daughter Barbara and his father, former President George H.W. Bush.
Phelps smiled, pointed and gave a thumbs-up.
“I looked up and he waved the flag and nodded his head,” Phelps said. “That was a pretty cool feeling to have the president say congratulations and have him in the crowd.”
Phelps said this might be his last 400 IM. He’s eager to try some new events and ditch a grueling race that combines all four strokes, though coach Bob Bowman may have something to say about that.
“We had a deal. I told Bob that I wanted this to be my last 400 IM. He said I have to end on a record,” Phelps said.
“In my opinion, that was my last one.”
If so, what a way to go out.
The top three traded the lead over the butterfly and backstroke legs. Cseh got off to a quick start, touching the first wall just ahead of Phelps, and Lochte claimed the lead midway through the back.
Phelps had a slight lead at the 200 mark, and it began turning into a blowout from there.
“Looking and seeing all three of us together pretty much at the 200, I wasn’t really comfortable with having that close of a race,” Phelps said. “I usually have more of a gap, but it made my breaststroke a lot stronger.”
No one was catching Phelps in the freestyle. He stretched his lead and powered to the wall with nearly his entire body in front of the world-record line — a green marker superimposed on the video screen to show the pace of the previous record.
“The freestyle is just downhill,” Phelps said. “The freestyle is all adrenaline.”
Added Cseh, “I saw Lochte was going (slower) and I tried to do everything to go better than Phelps, but I don’t have enough power for that.”
No one does.
On the medal stand, Phelps’ eyes watered as the U.S. flag was raised to the rafters. The only glitch came during the playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” which cut off a few seconds before the end, cracking up Phelps.
Lochte, who thought he could give Phelps a run for the gold, was blown out by the world’s greatest swimmer.
“I did everything I could, so that’s all I can ask for,” Lochte said. “That was amazing. Setting another world record, you can’t ask for anything else. That was a great way to start off the meet for USA.”