Phelps wins record eighth Olympic gold

It was billed as a team relay race, but it was only about one man, Michael Phelps. From the moment he walked into the Water Cube swimming pool at the head of the U.S. team, all eyes were fixed on him and his quest to win a record eighth gold medal at a single Olympics.

For years, no one believed that Mark Spitz's seven gold haul from 1972 could be overtaken. On Sunday, no one believed that Phelps would not make history by going one better.

His ever-faithful mother, Debbie, was up in the stands trying to contain her emotions. His two sisters sat nervously alongside, rising to their feet when their brother's familiar shape emerged out of the corridors and into the wide, high, translucent Cube.

Phelp's pre-race ritual is about as well honed as his physique and swimming technique.

The white dressing gown, making him look like a boxer heading for the ring, the furrowed concentration and intense stare as he listens to hip-hop on his headphones.

Then the robe comes off, revealing a gigantic, triangular torso tapering down to tight hips and legs that appear positively puny by comparison with his bull-like upper body.

He stretches first one leg, then the other and shakes his enormous wingspan, which is 3 inches longer than his body, giving him extra pull when he ploughs through the water.

Normally he wipes down his starting block and headed off on Sunday towel in hand only to find a team mate already in place waiting for the go. Of course, it was a relay.

Prior to Sunday's final, he had raced 16 times, won seven gold medals and helped set six world records. He has dominated some races, scraped to victory in others - by the length of a nail clipping when he won the 100 metre butterfly on Saturday.

Few if any athletes in the world could maintain that work load and Sunday again required something special from the man from Baltimore, who had yelled and screamed at his first swimming lesson because he did not want to get his face wet.

He was third into the pool for the U.S. and the team was lying third as he set off with his galloping butterfly stroke.

By the time he had completed his 100-metre stretch, the U.S. were back in the lead, leaving freestyler Jason Lezak a clear field to bring home the gold.

Sport is full of hyperbole. The terms "historic", "heroic" or "legendary" become almost banal, but no one in the crowd could deny on Sunday they had witnessed something remarkable.

"It is astounding. His individual records will be broken, but who can say if his eight gold medals will ever be beaten," said Australia's Jenny Turral, a former swimmer whose own world record in the 1,500 metres stood for several years.

As a one-time athlete, Turral knows how hard it is to win one event, let alone eight.

"I hate the word freak, but he is in a world of his own. He is staggering," she told Reuters from the spectator's stands.

Phelps looked more like a high school kid than a superhuman as he celebrated his record, back slapping his friends who had helped carry him to greatness, a goofy grin stuck on his face.

He was still smiling when he arrived for the medal ceremony, immediately placing a large foot on the podium as if he could not wait for that eighth gold he has cherished for so long.

Up to his right, tears welled in his mother's eyes and one of sisters buried her face in her hands as she cried for joy.

Afterwards, he climbed through hordes of photographers to hug his family and then made his way back to the changing room, not even glancing back at the pool where he had re-written history.

Perhaps he was already thinking about the next race.