When Jason Lezak touched the wall in yesterday’s men’s 4x10 medley relay, he, Aaron Peirsol, and Brendan Hansen (plus Matt Grevers, Mark Gangloff, Ian Crocker, and Garrett Weber-Gale who qualified Team USA in the relay prelims) helped Michael Phelps win his eighth gold medal in Beijing and move into the Olympic pantheon.
Phelps now stands among a select group of Olympians who have achieved the near impossible. Mary Lou Retton overcoming the Romanians and Soviets for the U.S.’s first all-around gymnastics title in 1984. Eric Heiden winning five gold medals in speedskating at the 1980 Winter Olympics, and the U.S. men’s hockey team overcoming both the Soviets and the Finns to win gold in that same Olympics. Nadia Comaneci scoring a perfect 10 in gymnastics at the 1976 Olympics. Mark Spitz’s seven golds in the 1972 Olympics. Bob Beamon leaping to 29’ 2.5” in the long jump in 1968.
There are others, I’m sure. These are the ones that come quickly to mind. Unlike Phelps’ achievement, we didn’t expect these Olympic moments. Hard work, a bit of luck, and utter determination led these individuals to a level above excellence. Their performances were captivating.
Would we have been disappointed had Milorad Cavic had the 0.01-second advantage over Phelps in the 100m butterfly? Or if Lezak hadn’t caught and past Alain Bernard in the 4x100 freestyle relay to give the USA and Phelps another gold? I would say yes. The hype before and during the Olympics has been about Phelps winning 8, leading us to expect that he would. Or should.
But why? Winning even one gold medal is an amazing feat. Why would we, the bystanders who only watch swimming every four years, have been disappointed if he had won fewer than 8 gold medals?
Because when he did win 8, he proved that on rare occasion we humans, for all our flaws, can be perfect. And we were awed.
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This feature was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.