It began as it ended: With a Phelps spectacle

Society Materials 17 August 2008 13:49 (UTC +04:00)

(dpa) - The Beijing Olympic swimming competition drew to a close on Sunday in the Beijing Water Cube the same way it began - with Michael Phelps winning gold.

The 23-year-old began his quest for an unprecedented eight gold medals a week ago by taking the first one on offer - the 400m individual medley - in a world record time of 4:03.84.

On Sunday he ended it with victory in the last swim of the competition - the 4x100m medley relay. And again it was a world record.

In between, he picked up gold for the 4x100m freestyle relay, 200m freestyle, 200m butterfly, 4x200m freestyle relay, 200m individual medley and the 100m butterfly, broke four other world records and became both the most successful all-time Olympian and the most successful Olympian at an individual Games.

His eight gold medals in Beijing took him past the seven won by American swimmer Mark Spitz in Munich in 1972, while his 14 overall is five clear of Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, Finnish athlete Paavo Nurmi, Spitz and US athlete Carl Lewis.

After his final race, he described his quest for the eight gold medals as an "upwards rollercoaster ride."

"The whole thing, every race, one after the other from winning by one hundredth of a second yesterday, to finishing it off with a world record.

"It's an amazing experience and something I'll have forever."

Not surprisingly, Phelps' achievements overshadowed everything else that happened in the Beijing Water Cube, where a total of 25 world records were broken.

There were several other stand-out performances, like Zimbabwean Kirsty Coventry, who gave her troubled homeland something to cheer about with three silver medals and a gold, as well as two world records.

"I am so proud and honoured to be representing Zimbabwe here. Everyone back home was so excited and so supportive of me coming into my race," she said.

South Korean Park Tae Hwan gave his country a first-ever Olympic swimming medal when he won the 400m freestyle and added a silver in the 200m.

Also getting a first-ever swimming medal for his country was Tunisian Oussama Mellouli, who denied Australian Grant Hackett a third straight gold medal in the men's 1,500m.

Mellouli, has only just returned to the sport after serving a lengthy doping ban, said that he was pleased to have come back. "The last year was very difficult and I am pleased that things worked out."

American Natalie Coughlin won six medals (one gold, two silver and three bronze) from her six swims, while Australian Stephanie Rice picked up three gold medals (women's 200m and 400m individual medley, as well as 4x200m freestyle).

Britain's Rebecca Adlington (women's 400m and 800 freestyle), German Britta Steffen (women's 50m and 100m freestyle) and Japan's Kosuke Kitajima (men's 100m and 200m breaststroke) were other double- gold medal winners.

Kitajima added a bronze in the 4x100m medley. In Athens four years ago he also managed to win a double in the breaststroke and added a relay medal.

41-year-old mother-of-one Dara Torres became the oldest Olympic swimming medallist when she won silver in the women's 4x100m freestyle relay.

The American added another two silvers (50m freestyle and 4x100m medley relay) to take her personal tally of Olympic medals to 12 and equal Jenny Thompson's women's swimming record.

She was just one hundredth of a second from the gold in the 50m freestyle. "It was tough to lost the race by one hundredth of a second. I realized I should not have filed my nails last night," she said.

But if Phelps was the star attraction, the relay events were a particularly strong supporting act as six world records were broken in the six events.

The Australian women's 4x200m freestyle relay slashed an astonishing 5.78 from the old record of 7:50.09 and followed that up by taking 3.05 seconds off the women's 4x100 medley relay to set the new mark at 3:52.69.

Rice said that leading the 4x200m freestyle relay team had been a new experience for her. "I've never led off a relay before, so that was a new experience. I really enjoyed that and enjoyed being able to cheer the rest of the team on after finishing."

In the men's relays the US team first cut the 4x100m freestyle relay record from 3:12.23 to 3:08.24 and then became the first team to swim under seven minutes for the 4x200m freestyle relay as they won gold in 6:58.56.

US swimmer Ricky Berens said that they had been inspired by Phelps. "He said before he swam: 'Don't screw up.' When a guy like that's yelling that at you, you better do what he says."