His Olympic wins are a triumph of imagination that physical limits can be broken.
Sports records don't usually fall this way. Beyond his numbers in Beijing – seven world records, the most gold medals in one Olympics (eight) – the porpoiselike human from Baltimore, Michael Phelps, also revived humanity's faith in progress by breaking through so many physical limits that once seemed impossible.
Along with his swimmates who helped him win in the relay races, Mr. Phelps broke Olympic barriers not just for the books or for his mother, not just to inspire other swimmers or win fans to his sport. Not even for the ages.
But for the imagination.
His triumph isn't only of the will or an anatomically ideal body but of something else: a vision of something greater.
"With so many people saying it couldn't be done, all it takes is an imagination," he said. It is advice he freely gives, coming out of an awe-inspiring, aw-shucks modesty.
And he makes it all look so fun and easy that it compels other Olympians to realize they, too, can break records. If he could, Phelps would probably be the first earthling to race in the water newly discovered on Mars – simply because someone said it couldn't be done. And then he'd give the same arms-tense roar of triumph as after his Olympic wins.
Sure, competitive swimming has become faster since Mark Spitz won his seven golds in the 1972 Munich Games. High-tech suits repel water like duck feathers. Stroke techniques and physical training are much improved. And in Beijing's pool, waves of interference from fellow paddlers are reduced.