"His performance gives new meaning to the term, "The Big O."
There are certain moments in sports that are truly historic--- When mouths are agape and the world comes suddenly to a stop--- When those epic images are burned into our collective minds--- When all words are inadequate to describe.
In the case of Michael Phelps, it was left to Aaron Peirsol, a five-time Olympic gold Champion backstroker to best describe what the world witnessed this past week in Beijing: "I guess from now on when someone does something amazing, we'll just call it a ‘Phelpsian,' achievement," he said.
That's an almost perfect way to describe an almost perfect swimmer. Only once, in 17 swims, did Phelps appear mortal: when he came within a pencil eraser of losing the 100 meter butterfly to Milorad Cavic, finally catching him with a desperate lunge at the wall that enabled him to win by .01 of a second.
It was only one of eight finals Phelps swam in which the letters, "WR," -- World Record -- didn't go up next to his name or his relay team.
Eight Olympic gold medals, and count ‘em, eight World Records!
The race for the final gold, the one that would eventually break Mark Spitz's 1972 Olympic feat of seven gold medals, the one that would set yet another World Record, was the Men's 4x100 medley.
Medley: Four guys, each swimming a different stroke, two lengths of the pool. That's it.
Now, it's a team swim.
The record lays not only on the fortunes of an aquatic freak of nature--- A man who could give Aqua Man a race for his money--- A man who is 6'4" with a 6'7" wingspan, who has double jointed ankles, knees and elbows. The record that will live for all history lies in the fortunes of his three teammates, Jason Lezak, Aaron Peirsol and Brendan Hansen.
When Phelps hit the water, swimming the butterfly leg in the 4x100 medley relay, the United States was in third place. By the time he finished his last swim, the U.S. not only led the race, it had a wide enough lead that anchor man Jason Lezak was able to hold off Australian world record holder Eamon Sullivan to give the U.S. the gold medal -- and Phelps his permanent place in Olympic history.
It had been done.
He eclipsed Mark Spitz's thirty-six year-old record.
"The Greatest," Muhammad Ali, who was on hand to witness the event and replied, "He floats like a butterfly and bites like a shark!" A reporter overhearing Muhammad's famous mantra tried to correct him, "Don't you mean, ‘Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee?'"
Muhammad responded, "You jump in the water with him, and he'll get you for sure!"
Phelps did get everyone and everything. And in the process cemented his performance in the 2008 Olympics as truly epic, one for the ages--- His performance was truly Phelpsian!
But, then I got to thinking, how did Peirsol think of the phrase Phelpsian? It sounded a little "Sonian," like Smithsonian--- A place where rare public treasures are housed.
I guess he now qualifies.
Then I recalled, almost 90 years ago, a man named Babe hit 54 home runs in one year. You say eh, what's the big deal? 54 home runs? That's pretty good, but a lot of guys have hit 50 home runs, even Brady Anderson hit 50. Plus, it's about twenty shy of Barry Bonds' record 73.
George Herman "Babe" Ruth's 54 prodigious shots in 1920 were more than every team in the league, except the Philadelphia Phillies.
Prior to that year, in 1919 Ruth hit 27 home runs, and in 1918 he tied Tilly Walker for the league lead with 11 home runs! So, when The Babe hit 54, he quintupled the previous best. Not only did he shatter his own record, he demolished it to the point that his performance was declared truly "Ruthian."
Then I began to think, "Records were made to be broken," but, what about the records that have very little chance of being broken? What are the truly Ruthian / Phelpsian achievements in sports? To make matters easy, I limited the performances to one season only and no career achievements in my semi-modern era, post World War I.
Besides hitting .424 for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1924, Rogers Hornsby led the league in seven offensive categories and finished second only in home runs. John McGraw, Manager of the New York Giants, after a stunning double-header defeat quipped, "Hits by day, doubles by night, I'm sick of Hornsby, get me out of his sight!
I guess, sometimes you get the bull, and sometimes you get the Hornsby."
In 1930, the Cubs' slugging centerfielder Hack Wilson had 191 runs batted in. Wild Bill Hallahan, who led the league in strike outs, but couldn't strike out Hack the entire season said, "He's got an unorthodox batting style; he just gets up there and ‘Hacks' away!"
In 1941 the Yankees' Joe DiMaggio's hit safely in 56 straight games. To put into perspective, if the streak was a man, he would be 67 years old, retired and collecting social security.
In 1945 "Iron" Byron Nelson won 11 straight PGA golf tournaments. Even though all future records will be compared to Tiger Woods as "Tigeresque," his 2006-07 record-run, was still four wins shy from tying the record. Byron's grandson, "Putter" Nelson quipped, "Tiger can sure drive the ball a long way, why do you think he's Tiger Woods? But we all know, ‘Drive for show' and putt for dough!'"
During the 1961-62 NBA season, the Cincinnati Royals' guard, Oscar "The Big O" Robertson averaged a triple double for the entire season! He scored double digits in points 30.8, assists 12.5, and rebounds 11.4. I guess his performance gives new meaning to the term, "The Big O."
In 1962, Wilt "The Big Dipper" Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points for the Milwaukee Bucks. He currently holds the top three all-time NBA season scoring averages and his closest competitor, Elgin Baylor is a full 12 points behind. Red Auerbach, coach of the Boston Celtics said, "The Big Dipper is so dominant that the entire universe couldn't contain him!"
When "Pistol" Pete Maravich hit the varsity floor, starting for the LSU Tigers at the beginning of his sophomore year in 1968, he began the greatest scoring assault in NCAA history. Over the next three seasons he averaged 43.8, 44.2, and 44.5 points per game respectively. Pete defined the term "Run and Gun."
You think "Shoot first and take no prisoners," only applied to war, think again--- He averaged over a point per minute!
Before there was Federal Express, there was Nolan Ryan Express. Nolan Ryan Express you ask? In 1973, the flame throwing California Angel Nolan Ryan, boxed, shipped, and sent 383 batters packing. In the 326 innings pitched, Ryan averaged 1.17 strikeouts per inning!
At the 1980 Olympics, a team of U.S. amateur hockey players defeated the Russians, who were considered to be the best international team, in a historic game nicknamed, the "Miracle on Ice." Only, the real miracle was about to happen months later...The birth of The "Great One." During the 1981-82 NHL hockey season, the Edmonton Oiler's, Wayne Gretzky shattered all previous scoring records when he recorded 92 goals and 120 assists.
Being known as a thief is usually not something one aspires to, but in the case of Rickey Henderson, the "Prince of Thieves," it's a great thing. In 1982, Henderson stole 130 bases for the Oakland A's. When asked about his habit, Henderson's Addiction, he replied,
I've been caught stealing once when I was five
I enjoy stealing, it's just as simple as that
Well, it's a simple fact
When I want a base, I don't wanna pay, I just take it
Take it he did. In fact, Henderson's 130 stolen bases were more than nine American League teams.
Some pitchers like their mouth to do the talking, others like Orel Hershiser like their arms to do the talking. In 1988, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Orel Hershiser's pitched 59 consecutive scoreless innings. To put into perspective, that's six and a half straight shut out games.
Phelpsian, Ruthian, Hendersonian, Nelsonian, Chamberlainian, Ryanesque, Hornsbyian, Gretzkyian...who will be next?
Copyright 2008 Steve Kay