Phelps sends message to all swimmers: He's really got game

BEIJING -- Apparently, the Chinese felt the need to lighten the mood on Michael Phelps.

There he was on the medal podium, gold around his neck and tears in his eyes, surprisingly emotional for a stoic guy who has been there six times before -- and could be there seven more times in these Olympics. But just when it looked like the American Aquaman was going to break down and bawl as "The Star-Spangled Banner" reached "home of the brave," the music cut off.

At that unceremonious ending to the 400-meter individual medley medal ceremony, all Phelps could do was laugh. The Chinese certainly weren't giggling at that faux pas, not with President George W. Bush in the house to see greatness in a Speedo. But it was time for Phelps to exhale and smile.

"I have no idea," Phelps said when asked why he choked up. "I said to myself I wanted to sing [the anthem] on the podium, but I couldn't stop crying.

"Everything that happened this year, the ups and downs I've had … I was just happy to get the first one under my belt."

This 400 IM isn't really under his belt. It's in the world's face. On an otherwise inglorious morning for American swimmers, this was an unmistakable message that Phelps is on top of his game.

And that's very bad news for everyone hoping to derail his quest for the great eight.

"Any time you think you can get close to Michael Phelps," said Hungarian silver medalist Laszlo Cseh, "he jumps to another level."

The new level: 4 minutes, 3.84 seconds, smashing his own world record by 1.41 seconds. Phelps smoked Cseh by 2.32 seconds and bronze medalist Ryan Lochte -- who pushed his American teammate to the wall at the U.S. trials in late June -- by 4.25.

It was, quite simply, the very best performing at his very best.

"That was his best race," said Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman. And he didn't mean his best race of the month or the year. He meant the best race of his life. Which is like saying you heard the best of Mozart's concertos, read the best of Shakespeare's sonnets or watched the best of Tiger Woods' rounds of golf.

It's special. Historically special.

"When you consider the circumstances," Bowman continued, "everything around it, to win like that under those expectations and pressure, it's kind of amazing."

Clearly, pressure is not going to be a factor in this grand medal chase. When a guy can perform like that with the president in the house and much of America glued to the tube, he's impervious.

At least until he reached the podium.

Phelps is so routinely amazing, so seemingly immune to any deviation in performance, that you almost forget he's human. But there was the refreshing reminder during "The Star-Spangled Banner."

With his hair freshly buzzed, his Magnum PI mustache shaven and those watery eyes, he looked younger than his 23 years. He looked like a kid fulfilling a dream. It was nice to see him that way, to be reminded that he's not just a swimming cyborg.

"It got me emotional," Bowman said, watching his pupil tear up. "I'm glad no camera was on me."

It would have been great to have a camera on Bowman when Phelps swam the breaststroke leg of the IM. That's when Phelps took over the race, reinforcing his staggering versatility -- it's by far his weakest stroke and always has been.

After the butterfly and backstroke legs, Phelps was in a dogfight with both Cseh and Lochte, and he knew it. How did he know? He spied the times on the scoreboard while churning on his back.

The thought in his head: "Oh, man, we're pretty close. Well, this is going to be a fun last 200."

Fun is a foreign concept in the last half of a 400 IM. Your muscles scream and your lungs burn. And everyone expected that third leg of the IM to be Lochte's big chance to catch and pass his nemesis, as he briefly did in Omaha, Neb.

During the preliminaries Saturday night, Phelps swam the breaststroke leg in 1:12.14. Lochte swam it in 1:10.60. Advantage Lochte, it appeared.

Wrong. With gold on the line, Phelps scorched the breaststroke, ripping through the first 50 in a lifetime-best 34.77 and backing it up with a strong 35.79 on the second 50. By then, he'd pumped his lead from two-tenths to more than a second on Lochte and Cseh, and the race was over.

"That was the best he's ever swam breaststroke," Bowman said. "That was the difference in the race."

Bowman said he saw that breaststroke breakout coming in practice over the past month. Former American Olympian Lenny Krayzelburg said he saw a dominant meet coming for Phelps when he heard his pre-Games comments.

"I don't think I've ever really heard Michael being this outspoken about how good he feels," Krayzelburg said before the Olympics. "Which is a little bit scary. I roomed with Michael Phelps in 2004 and he wasn't like that at all. He didn't talk like that. This time around, it's really surprising to see him talking about how good he feels."

Clearly, Phelps knew what he was talking about. The proof was in the pool on Sunday morning, as he left everyone gasping in his wake.

Phelps was so clearly in command that, in the final 25 meters, he said he actually smiled. Underwater. He did the same while winning his first event (and first gold medal) four years ago in Athens.

Maybe that's the guy's secret. He can smile (and presumably breathe) while submerged.

"I can't express enough how excited I am to be able to start off with that event and the time I posted," Phelps said.

Now, he has to completely forget it happened. Roughly 7½ hours after talking to the media on Sunday morning, Phelps will be back in the pool for the preliminaries of the 200-meter freestyle. Among those he'll face in that event is Korean Taehwan Park, who surprisingly won the 400 free on Sunday morning in the sixth-fastest time ever, and the fastest time by someone not named Ian Thorpe.

Somehow, we think Phelps will be ready for the challenge.

"I think I'm as prepared as I can be at this moment," he said. "I'm in probably the best shape of my life."

The meet of a lifetime has now begun for Michael Phelps, with the opening act surpassing even his own script. And the Chinese have seven more chances to get the anthem right.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.