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It finally starts to sink in for Phelps
United States' Michael Phelps swims in a men's 200-meter individual medley heat during the swimming competitions in the National Aquatics Center at the Beijing 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008. - photo by Associated Press
    BEIJING — Michael Phelps finally seems to be grasping what it all means.
    Maybe it started to sink in when the president showed up at the Water Cube and came back for an encore. Maybe he got a better idea when all those NBA superstars — Kobe Bryant and LeBron James among them — actually led the cheers for him. Maybe it was those relentless text messages from friends back home.
    Maybe he actually listened when the race announcer at the pool said in a deep, authoritative voice:
    ‘‘Michael Phelps, greatest Olympian ever.’’
    The head dipped. The shoulders twitched. The slightest of smiles creased his lips.
    ‘‘Growing up, I always wanted to be an Olympian,’’ Phelps said later. ‘‘I just kept thinking, ’Wow, greatest Olympian of all time.’ It’s a pretty cool title.’’
    After winning five gold medals and setting five world records over the course of four days, Phelps actually got a bit of a respite Thursday at the Beijing Games, maybe he’ll even take a minute or two to reflect. He merely had the semifinals of the 200-meter individual medley in the morning, followed by the preliminaries of the 100 butterfly in the evening.
    By Phelps’ standards, a rather light day.
    Just look what he did Wednesday: In the span of an hour, he set a world record in the 200-meter butterfly — even though a faulty pair of goggles filled with water during the race — and then came back to lead the first 800 freestyle relay to crack the seven-minute barrier, virtually lapping the rest of the field.
    Those were the 10th and 11th gold medals of Phelps’ career, leaving Mark Spitz, Carl Lewis & Co. in the dust. And he’s still aiming to win three more before he leaves China, which would take down the record he really wants: Spitz’s seven-gold performance from 36 years ago.
    Everyone else is just a spectator.
    ‘‘I think he’s undisputedly the greatest swimmer of all time,’’ longtime Italian coach Alberto Castagnetti said. ‘‘He’s stratospheric, in technical terms and in terms of mental preparation. I’ve never seen anyone like him.’’
    Castagnetti should know. He raced against Spitz at the Munich Games.
    ‘‘Spitz was much more limited,’’ the coach said. ‘‘He had two races that were similar, freestyle and butterfly, and he had a team behind him for the relays in which even I could have won.’’
    These are the finals Phelps has left:
    — Friday, 200 individual medley: Teammate and fellow hip-hop aficionado Ryan Lochte certainly makes this a potential stumbling block, considering he put up the third-fastest time in history at the U.S. trials last month. Then again, Phelps set a world record in that same race and will benefit from Lochte trying to pull off a tough double, also racing in the 200 backstroke on the same morning.
    — Saturday, 100 butterfly: American Ian Crocker holds the world record, but he set that mark three long years ago. Phelps has won nearly every big race between the two, including the 2004 Olympics, last year’s world championships and the most recent U.S. trials, where he pulled away to an easy win. Crocker will be well rested, however, since this is his only individual event.
    — Sunday, 400 medley relay: The U.S. has never actually lost this event at the Olympics, the only blip on its perfect record coming in 1980 when the Americans boycotted. This is about as sure of a lock as Phelps will have at these games, though there is always the chance of a stumble. Remember Crocker jumping in too early on a relay exchange during what should have been a routine prelims swim at last year’s world championships? The Americans were disqualified, denying Phelps the chance to win an eighth gold.
    Judging by the way he’s swimming in China, it would likely take a similar fluke for Phelps to miss out on Spitz’s record.
    ‘‘He is just a normal person, but maybe from a different planet,’’ said Russia’s Alexander Sukhorukov, fresh off a thrashing by the Phelps-led Americans in the 800 free relay Wednesday but still wearing a silver medal around his neck.
    Cornel Marculescu, who runs the sport’s governing body, concurred with the intergalactic theory.
    ‘‘The problem is, we have an extraterrestrial,’’ Marculescu said. ‘‘No one else can win.’’
    British swimmer Simon Burnett has a different take, which he shared with American men’s coach Eddie Reese when they ran into each other in the cafeteria.
    ‘‘He was saying to me, ’I think I’ve figured out Michael Phelps,’’’ Reese said. ‘‘’He is not from another planet; he is from the future. His father made him and made a time machine. Sixty years from now he is an average swimmer, but he has come back here to mop up.’’’
    Science fiction aside, the 23-year-old from Baltimore is clearly swimming off the charts in Beijing.
    After a six-gold performance at the 2004 Athens Games, Phelps needed only five days here to surpass Spitz, Lewis, Soviet gymnast Larysa Latynina and Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi as the winningest Olympian ever.
    ‘‘Being on the team with him these past couple of years, a lot of us take what he does for granted,’’ said Natalie Coughlin, who’s won three medals of her own at these games but barely has gotten noticed. ‘‘We expect him to break world records. We expect him to win.’’
    Even when things don’t go according to plan, Phelps finds a way to overcome. In the 200 fly, his signature stroke, his goggles filled with water shortly after he dove in the pool. Still, he glided across the surface, his long arms gobbling up water.
    ‘‘I couldn’t see,’’ he said. ‘‘I was more or less sort of counting strokes. I sort of know how many strokes I take for 50 and I was hoping that I would be dead-on.’’
    Phelps ripped off his goggles after touching the wall, clearly perturbed, and rubbed the chlorine out of his eyes. Then he looked at the scoreboard, which showed 1 minute, 52.03 seconds — a world record by sixth-hundredths of a second.
    Phelps held up his right index finger but barely smiled. The fastest 200 fly in history wasn’t up to his exacting standards.
    ‘‘It was a best time, but I was just disappointed,’’ he said. ‘‘I know I can go faster.’’

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