Michael Phelps of the United States reacts after winning the gold medal in the men's 200-meter individual medley during the swimming competitions in the National Aquatics Center at the Beijing 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Friday.
Itsuo Inouye / ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
BEIJING Michael Phelps collected the sixth gold medal and stuffed it in his warmup jacket. No time to even savor that one as he rushed off to swim again.
It was just No. 6, after all, equaling his haul from Athens in 2004.
The most important ones are still to come.
Phelps made it 6-for-6 at the Beijing Games with another world-record triumph Friday, his bid to take down Mark Spitz and the grandest of Olympic records looking less suspenseful by the day.
The American hung on the lane rope in a familiar pose after winning the 200-meter individual medley but showed little emotion other than raising his left arm when his time of 1 minute, 54.23 seconds flashed on the board more than two seconds ahead of the next guy.
With that, he quickly moved on.
"The next two races are pretty important," said Phelps, whose sixth world record in China erased his own mark of 1:54.80 at last month's U.S. trials. "I have to conserve as much physical and emotional energy as I can."
He's already the winningest athlete in Olympic history with 12 golds he also won two bronze medals in Athens but his sights are on eight in Beijing.
Spitz won seven golds at the 1972 Munich Games. Phelps has two more events to remove any doubt he's the greatest Olympian ever.
Ryan Lochte tried to pull off a daunting double, going against Phelps just 29 minutes after winning the 200 backstroke. He couldn't keep up, though he did hold on for bronze. Laszlo Cseh of Hungary picked up his third silver of the games all of them trailing Phelps.
"It's not a shame," Cseh said, "to be beaten by a better one."
When the official times were posted, Phelps extended his right hand to Lochte in the next lane. The friends shook hands and patted each other on the head.
Later, they yukked it up on the medal stand before Phelps hustled off to grab his racing gear; he had to come right back for the semifinals of the 100 butterfly.
"I switched from my dress sweats to my parka, shoes, threw my cap and goggles on and then they pushed us on out. No time," he said. "The medal was in my warmup jacket."
History can't wait.
A half-hour after winning another gold, Phelps was second-fastest behind Milorad Cavic of Croatia in the 100 fly, setting himself up to tie Spitz's record in Saturday's final. World record-holder Ian Crocker of the U.S. bounced back from a disappointing swim in the prelims to post the third-fastest time.
"There wasn't much time," Phelps said, "but I think there's going to be a lot of time for me to rest over the next 18 hours or so, and I'll be able to be ready for tomorrow morning's 100."
If all goes according to plan, Phelps will get No. 7 in the fly his signature stroke and have the coronation Sunday in the 400 medley relay. The Americans are always heavily favored for gold in that one.
Nevertheless, he's taking nothing for granted, especially in the fly. Crocker has the best time ever (though it was three years ago) and Cavic looked strong in both the preliminaries and semifinals.
"It's never a relief," he said. "Tomorrow is going to be a tough race. For me to be a player in that race, I have to be closer at the 50. If I'm not, then it will be tough. I was over a body length behind at the 50 in the prelims and came up a bit short, so I have to be there."
Still, he showed little signs of tiring from the grueling schedule. He's already raced 15 times and has two more left both going for gold.
"I actually don't feel too bad now," Phelps said.
That can't be encouraging for those swimmers who've come up with all sorts of amusing theories for Phelps' dominance. He's from outer space. He's come back from the future in a time machine. He's some sort of human rocket.
The official Xinhua News Agency dubbed Phelps "the American superfish."
For those who believe Phelps might be using more illicit methods to produce these times, he shot down any speculation about doping.
"Anybody can say whatever they want, but I know I'm clean," said Phelps, who took part in a special U.S. anti-doping program that subjected him to additional, more sophisticated testing. "People can question it all they want, but the facts are the facts. I have the results to prove it."
Lochte got quite a consolation prize for his loss to Phelps: a world record and the first individual gold medal of his career in the backstroke. The laid-back Floridian edged teammate Aaron Peirsol in 1:53.94 to break the mark he shared with Peirsol.
"I touched the wall and was like, 'Thank you, finally,'" Lochte said. "It felt good the whole way."
Lochte was known as "Mr. Runner-up" for his frequent second-place finishes to Phelps and Peirsol. Then he stunned Peirsol at last year's world championships in 1:54.32, before Peirsol matched the time in beating Lochte at the U.S. Olympic trials last month.
Lochte got Peirsol back despite a problem with his LZR Racer.
"My suit came undone after the first 50," Lochte said. "I was just trying to control my legs."
Lochte couldn't tame Phelps, however, which would appear to leave Crocker as the last man standing between Phelps and his destiny.
A thoughtful, 25-year-old from Maine, who loves to cruise in vintage cars and jam on his guitar, Crocker is now trying to go down in history as the man who stopped Phelps.
"You can start by not worrying about what everybody else thinks," he said. "Nobody knows what I've really gone through in the last eight years and what has gotten me to this point, besides myself and a few people that I know well. So it's my own personal deal at this point."
Peirsol won the 100 back in Beijing, but failed to match his backstroke double from Athens four years ago. He earned the silver in 1:54.33, while Russia's Arkady Vyatchanin claimed the bronze.
"That's the theme of the meet. You have to break a world record to win. I gave it my all and I had nothing left," Peirsol said. "I'm very proud of what I've done. Ryan swam well. He earned it."
Rebecca Soni gave the U.S. women's swim team a much-needed boost, setting a world record in the 200 breaststroke with an upset of Australia's Leisel Jones.
Soni had already claimed a surprising silver behind Jones in the 100 breast, a race she wasn't even supposed to be in. She took over when Jessica Hardy failed a doping test at the U.S. trials and was dropped from the team.
Jones was out front over the first 100, but Soni came on strong at the end, finishing a full body length ahead of the Aussie in 2:20.22. She beat Jones' mark of 2:20.54, set two 2 years ago in Melbourne.
Soni's victory came about 14 hours after American distance hopes Katie Hoff and Kate Ziegler failed to make the final of the 800 freestyle, and two summers after Soni underwent a minor heart operation.
"It's been a long road to get here, and I really can't believe that just happened," she said.
Jones claimed silver and Norway's Sara Nordenstam took bronze.
"I really couldn't breathe that last 50. I was just digging deep and couldn't breathe," Jones said. "A silver medal is still a silver medal in the Olympics. I gave it everything, I couldn't have given more."
The only non-American gold of the morning went to Germany's Britta Steffen in the 100 freestyle, ahead of Australia's Libby Trickett by four-hundredths of a second. Steffen set an Olympic record, 53.12.
American Natalie Coughlin claimed the bronze for her fifth medal of these games, matching her total from Athens with the medley relay still to go.
"I'm very proud of how I've handled the heavier workload," she said.
In other semifinals, Brazil's Cesar Cielo was top qualifier in the 50 free (21.34) and 100 gold medalist Alain Bernard of France won his heat in 21.54. American Ben Wildman-Tobriner slipped into the final, tying for the seventh-fastest time at 21.76, but teammate Garrett Weber-Gale was eliminated.
In the 200 backstroke, Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry led the way at 2:07.76, just ahead of 15-year-old Elizabeth Beisel (2:07.90), the youngest member of the American team. World record-holder Margaret Hoelzer of the U.S. advanced to the final with the fifth-best time, 2:08.25.
Phelps' win was the 21st world record set in swimming during the Olympics, with two days left.
Two days that could make history.