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Memorable Swimming Moments Abound In Beijing

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

The Olympic drama is over at the water cube, but oh, those memories. Michael Phelps scooping up eight gold medals and seven world records, Dara Torres at 41 years old losing by a fingernail. Stunning sprints, raucous relays, dazzling dives.

NPR's Howard Berkes is in Beijing where hearts are still racing, even if the swimmers are done.

HOWARD BERKES: This was the most redundant announcement at the Olympic pool this week.

(Soundbite of Olympic Announcement)

Unidentified Man: With the gold medal and Olympic champion in the world and Olympic record time, representing the United States of America, Michael Phelps.

(Soundbite of Cheering)

BERKES: This was the first of eight medal ceremonies for Phelps and his eyes welled with tears as the gold hung from his neck. It was an auspicious start, a clear win in the individual medley. But the next event ended with the most dramatic finish of the week.

(Soundbite of Cheering)

BERKES: This was the freestyle relay where Phelps led off, and Jason Lezak swam the last leg surging from behind in the fastest 100 meters ever, winning by just eight one-hundredths of a second. That was too close for comfort, and (unintelligible) set a pattern for the six races to follow.

John Naber watched at home in California. His four swimming gold medals at the 1976 Games gave him some sense of the challenge Phelps faced.

Mr. JOHN NABER (Olympic Gold Medalist): In many races, he had to defeat people who were world record holders in that event. In one race, he had to overcome leaking goggles. In another race, he had to out touch a swimmer by taking one more stroke than his opponents. All these ingredients combine to say, you know what? This guy is focused only on touching the wall first, and he does seem to be impervious to the pressures that would buckle the knees of any other mortal human being.

BERKES: When it was all over, Phelps was matter-of-fact about the goals he had set for the week.

Mr. MICHAEL PHELPS (Olympic Gold Medalist): Everything was accomplished, you know what I mean? Doing all best times, winning every race, you know, this is something we've been looking forward to for the last four years and it's been a fun last four years. And it's been one fun week, that's for sure.

BERKES: Phelps ended the games with more gold medals than any athlete in a single Olympics and most gold medals in an Olympic career. American swimmer Dara Torres had a very different goal for these Olympics, to show that age doesn't matter.

(Soundbite of Olympic Announcement)

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) United States of America, Dara Torres.

(Soundbite of Cheering)

BERKES: The 41-year-old Torres swam the 50-meter freestyle against one swimmer 25 years younger. Torres won three silver medals in Beijing, missing gold by just a hundredth of a second.

Ms. DARA TORRES (Olympic Silver Medalist): If it helps anyone else out there who is in their middle aged years, and maybe put off something that they thought they couldn't do because they were too old or maybe thought because they have children that they can't balance what they want to do and being a parent, if I can show what I've done and that you can do it, then I'm absolutely thrilled.

BERKES: The pool itself and the building around it also starred. The Water Cube, as it's called, looks like it's sheathed in bubble wrap and glows bright blue at night. Inside, the pool's built to absorb turbulence. That explains, in part, 25 world and 57 Olympic records in nine days.

Olympic gold medalist Rowdy Gaines analyzes swimming for NBC.

Mr. ROWDY GAINES (Olympic Gold Medalist; Swimming Analyst, NBC): I think the factors were A, the swimming pool itself, 200-million-dollar complex, B, the swimsuit, 500 dollar high tech suit that is less resistant to water than human skin is, and then C, that final thing, are the athletes that are just training so much harder than they ever had before.

BERKES: There's also a D: the skill and drive to swim faster than ever, and to stand on the podium with an Olympic medal.

Howard Berkes, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Howard Berkes
Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.