BEIJING - Each time Michael Phelps walks on deck for his next Olympic race, the three most important women in his life brace themselves for what's to come.
Debbie Phelps places a hand on each daughter's knee. They each grab one of her arms. With the race under way, the women rise in unison, watching every stroke, every flip, every breath between furious glances at the clock.
"It's exhausting," Debbie Phelps said yesterday. "I can only imagine what he goes through because I was tired after that relay."
They, along with 17,000 fans packed inside the Water Cube, were left breathless yesterday morning after Phelps's effort to break Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals survived the 400-meter freestyle relay. This morning he added his third Olympic gold with a world-record time in the 200 free.
"We're more nervous than he is, even though we have no control over what he's going to do and how fast he's going to swim," said Hilary Phelps, Michael's 30-year-old sister.
Phelps swam the leadoff leg yesterday morning and Jason Lezak brought it home in world-record time, outtouching Frenchman Alain Bernard at the wall. At that point it was two finals, two golds for Phelps.
"All I kept on saying was, 'Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,' " Debbie Phelps said.
She, along with Hilary and other daughter Whitney Flickinger, saw Phelps explode in a prolonged raucous yell, his arms thrust toward the roof.
"He was like a crazy man out there," his mother said. "That was kind of like the tiger out of the cage."
The tiger was soon tamed as Phelps made his way around the deck during the victory ceremony. Spotting his mom, he reached up into the stands, handed over his bouquet of red roses, and gave her a kiss.
"I told him how much I loved him and how proud I was of him," she said.
Her only son's response?
"I love you too, Mom."
Mother, son, and both daughters are a close-knit bunch, scarred by a long-ago divorce that left Debbie to raise three children alone and created a strained relationship between the father and Phelps.
"He's very protective of us and wants to make sure we're OK," Whitney, a 28-year-old former elite swimmer and mother to Phelps's niece and nephew. "It's important for him that we're here and it's important for us to be there to support him. That's kind of our role in this journey."
Her kid brother passed his two toughest tests - the 400 individual medley and the 400 relay - right away. Still, there are hungry challengers out there, looking to spoil Phelps's run.
"I don't think Michael will let his guard down until the last relay race," his mother said. "There are some athletes who are here just for that one event. They've been resting all week, where every time Michael gets up on the block, he has to gear himself up for his performance that night or that morning."
With 17 races over nine days, Phelps has little time to connect with his family. So they eagerly await each text message or quick call from him.
"They're short messages, but they're meaningful," Debbie Phelps said.
Just as Phelps adheres to a strict schedule in Beijing, so does his family. The women usually get to bed at 2 a.m., rise at 6, eat breakfast by 7, and arrive at the pool by 8 for morning finals.
"We're very emotional, then you kind of have to detox yourself after the whole morning is over, evening is over," Debbie Phelps said. "It's just a continuous cycle that you're on."
Being the mother of the world's greatest swimmer brings unique opportunities, like getting to meet President Bush at the Water Cube.
"He said to me, 'I understand on top of Michael being a phenomenal athlete, he's a very humble young man,' " she recalled. "I said, 'Yes sir, he is very humble, he's very gracious."'
"That's because of you," Bush told her.
In his trips to the medals podium so far, Phelps's eyes have welled with tears. "He's very moved at this Olympics," his mother said, her voice catching.