BEIJING - This was a calling card, just as it was in Athens four years ago. Want to beat Michael Phelps at Olympus? Better be prepared to set a world record. "I wanted to go 4:03," the world's best swimmer said today, after he'd shattered his own global mark in the 400-meter individual medley by nearly a second and a half in 4:03.84 to win his first Olympic gold medal in his quest for a historic eight. "I didn't know if I could."
For a few moments midway through the backstroke leg, when Phelps trailed teammate Ryan Lochte by a quarter of a second at the turn, there seemed to be a flicker of a chance that his bid to erase Mark Spitz's 1972 record for most victories at one Games might end on the first day. But then Phelps brought the hammer down in the breaststroke leg - by far his weakest stroke - and the race was over before they got to the freestyle. When the froth had settled, Phelps had dusted Hungary's Laszlo Cseh by 2.32 seconds and Lochte by more than four.
It was the first gold medal of the meet for the Americans, who are expected to dominate the table ahead of archrival Australia, and their only one of the day. Katie Hoff, Phelps's old North Baltimore clubmate, came in as the world record-holder in the women's 400 IM and lost both the record and the race to Australia's Stephanie Rice (4:29.45), finishing third behind Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry.
The US women's 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay, with 41-year-old Dara Torres swimming anchor, fell behind early and couldn't catch the Netherlands, settling for silver. And Larsen Jensen, who had a good chance to win the men's 400 freestyle, finished third behind South Korea's Park Tae Hwan and China's Zhang Lin.
But it was Phelps who had the biggest burden and who produced the biggest margin of the day. "To be honest, I didn't really feel that great," said Phelps, who'll go for his second - and least certain gold - in Monday's 4 x 100 freestyle relay, the event that ended his 2004 bid when the Americans came in third. "Going into the ready room, I started to get chills."
The 400 IM, which Phelps also won decisively in Athens, makes him more nervous than any other event. It's the first one on the card, the one he says drains him more than any other, the one he vowed never to race again. This time, when Phelps saw Cseh and Lochte right with him midway through, he felt unsettled. "I wasn't comfortable after the first 200 with so many people bunched together," he said. "That's not how it usually is. There's usually a little more breathing room."
So Phelps promptly went and got himself some and had the lead at the next turn. "I knew I was going to need a strong breaststroke when we all turned together at the wall," he said. "Then Ryan turned dead even at the 200, so I knew I was going to have to overpower them."
The breast has never been his stroke, not since the first time Phelps put his face in the water as a child. It's the only one he doesn't swim in an individual event. What helped him this time is that both of his rivals are backstrokers. If they hadn't overtaken Phelps by the end of that leg, they weren't going to.
"I guess you can say I went out too fast," said Lochte, who pushed Phelps to his old world record (4:05.25) at the Omaha trials. "I knew I had to get out fast. The backstroke took a lot out of me, but I did my best. I can't ask for anything more."
By the end of the breast leg, Phelps had Lochte by a second, the world record by even more, and the race was over. Nobody is going to beat the man from Baltimore on a freestyle leg with an Olympic gold medal at the end of it. "Coming home in the freestyle, it's all about adrenaline," he said.
When he touched the wall and checked out the scoreboard (not that he needed to), Phelps flashed a delighted grin and pumped both fists. "I'm shocked that I went that fast," he said. Then he spotted President Bush, the First Fan, in the stands. "He nodded and waved the American flag," said Phelps. "That was a pretty special feeling."
It was, he confessed, an emotional moment, more so than most. The squeeze that he felt in Athens, the huge No. 8 hanging over his head, has only intensified since. Ever since Phelps broke his right wrist last fall getting into a car, he's felt as if he's been living on a Wild Mouse carnival ride. Winning the first race at Olympus put his world back in balance, at least for a day. "I was just happy to get the first one under my belt," he said.
Once Phelps had done that, the emotions overwhelmed him. "I don't know why," he said, after finding himself weeping on the medal stand as he watched the Stars and Stripes go up and heard the anthem. "I said to Bob [coach Bowman] that I wanted to sing on the medal podium, but I couldn't stop crying."
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.