BEIJING—He was breathing hard. His muscles were screaming. His goggles were full of water and he couldn't see the walls. Michael Phelps was exhausted, and one of his competitors was closing fast. In the stands, his coach looked worried.
It didn't matter.
Michael Phelps refused to let his historic quest slip away today at the Water Cube, summoning every ounce of energy that he had over the final 25 meters to hold on and win the 200-meter butterfly in a world-record time of 1 minute, 52.03 seconds. The victory, his 10th career gold medal, gives him more than anyone in history.
"When I was on the awards (podium) for the 200 fly, I started thinking about it and that's when I started tearing up," Phelps said. "Being at the top, with so many great athletes who have walked in these Olympic Games, is a pretty amazing feeling."
A little more than an hour later, still weary from his first race, he managed to win his 11th gold, leading off the 800-meter freestyle relay for the United States with the second-fastest 200-meter freestyle ever (1:43.31). The Americans won easily, crushing the previous world record by more than five seconds with a time of 6:58.56.
But it was Phelps' gritty, blind win in the 200-meter butterfly that people will remember, especially if he wins gold in his final three events this week and breaks Mark Spitz's record for most gold medals in a single Olympic Games. Hungary's Laszlo Cseh finished second, .67 seconds behind, while Japan's Matsuda Takeshi won the bronze.
"I dove in and (my goggles) just filled right up with water," Phelps said. "It got worse and worse through the race. Going into the 150 (meter) wall and the finish, I couldn't see the wall. I was just hoping I was winning and hoping I could get my hand on the wall first."
The same thing happened to Phelps at the 2007 FINA World Championships in the 200-meter individual medley, but he also managed to set a world record that day as well. He just might go down as the only swimmer in history to set multiple world records without being able to see when it was time to touch the wall.
Towson's Katie Hoff set an American record in the 200-meter freestyle, but it wasn't quite enough to medal as the 19-year-old finished fourth. She also finished fourth in the 200-meter individual medley.
Phelps' march toward history seems almost inevitable at this point, and the marketing campaign to celebrate his achievements is already in full swing.
Seconds after the race ended, Visa broadcast a commercial congratulating Phelps on winning more gold medals than any other Olympian. Pictures of Phelps flashed across the screen -- all of them toned the color gold -- while actor Morgan Freeman narrated.
"He's competed against the past. He's competed against the history books. He's competed against time, expectations and everyone who came before him," Freeman said. "But most of all, he's competed against himself. ... Congratulations Michael, on having won more gold medals than anybody. Ever."
Phelps is so dominant in the 200-meter butterfly, he is essentially the Harlem Globetrotters to everyone else's Washington Generals. He has now won the event in 23 consecutive meets, both major and minor, dating back six years. The last man to beat him was Tom Malchow in 2002 at the Pan Pacific Championships in Yokohama, Japan. Phelps was 17 years old, and lost by .02 seconds.
"It might be once in a century you'd see something like this," said American Aaron Piersol. "The way he's attacking this meet -- he's not just winning, he's destroying it -- it's awesome to watch. It's inspiring to me."
The buzz Phelps has created has even extended beyond swimming. Today at the pool, NBA players Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Jason Kidd were all poolside, rooting on Phelps and the rest of the United States relay team. Debbie Phelps, Michael's mom, even posed with them for photos. Midway through the 200 fly, Bryant was pumping his fists, urging Phelps on.
Though appreciated, he hardly needed it. Most swimmers need all the planets to align if they're going to break a world record. They need to be in peak condition, plus they need to get an added boost of adrenaline. Not Phelps. His coach, Bob Bowman, has an acronym he occasionally cites when talking about Phelps' mental approach to racing:
W.I.N. -- What's Important Now?
"One thing that separates Michael from most people, if they don't feel good, they don't swim well," Bowman said. "Michael kind of performs independently of his feelings. I think he's practiced it over a long time. He knows exactly what he wants to accomplish and he's able to just compartmentalize what's important."
In some respects, there are really two Michael Phelps in China this week. The first one marches onto the pool deck each morning, stone-faced and steely-eyed, prepared to destroy anyone in his path.
The second one has been laughing and joking his way through news conferences, tearing up on the medal stand and shooting text messages back and forth with his friends. A few hours after he warmed down this morning, he paused during his news conference to scroll through his BlackBerry. He wanted to share a note that one of his friends back in the States had sent him.
"He said two things: 'It's ridiculous how many times a day I have to see your ugly face,'" Phelps said. "His last one said 'It's time to be the best ever.' That was the last text I saw this morning."
What's next for Phelps
THURSDAY NIGHTEVENT 200-meter individual medley
WHAT TO WATCH FOR Once again, Ryan Lochte and Laszlo Cseh of Hungary will be Michael Phelps' closest competition. Phelps beat Lochte by nearly a half-second at the Olympic trials, but Lochte had just finished swimming the 200 backstroke 25 minutes before their race. Lochte, who holds a share of the world record in the 200 backstroke, will face the same challenge in the Olympic final, giving Phelps all the advantage he needs to pull away.