Michael Phelps smiles after setting a world record to win the men's 200-meter butterfly last Wednesday in Beijing.

Michael Phelps-the greatest Olympic athlete of all time? I’m not ready to put the golden boy of the Athens and Beijing Olympics on that podium. He certainly is the greatest aquatic athlete, but therein resides my reservation. The different strokes give swimmers multiple opportunities to win medals. Why the breaststroke and the butterfly, when the freestyle is the fastest way to get across the pool? Track runners do not have skipping and backwards races.

Jesse Owens still gets my vote for his four gold medals in the Nazi Olympics of 1936. He was so impressive that even the Germans idolized the black American, according to David Wallechinsky’s authoritative account in The Complete Book of the Olympics. Owens set a world record in the long jump that stood for a quarter of a century. His exploits still resonate after 72 years. How will Phelps be remembered in 2080? Well, if he piles on more medals in 2012, maybe he will have created a legacy that cannot be surpassed or forgotten. But until then :

Jason Lezak, the UCSB grad whose stunning anchor leg in the 400-meter freestyle relay kept Phelps’ streak alive, also finished off the 400 medley relay that pulled Phelps past Mark Spitz‘s record of seven golds. Lezak, a huge basketball fan, said he could not fail with LeBron James and Kobe Bryant watching the race. The 32-year-old U.S. team captain, competing in his third Olympics, nabbed his first individual medal, a bronze in the 100 freestyle.

The freestyle relay finish and Phelps’s amazing last stroke to win the 100 butterfly by one one-hundredth of a second were two of the most thrilling moments in the Games. The most awesome sight was Usain Bolt‘s loose and bombastic world-record romp in the 100-meter dash.

Having attended the previous four Summer Games-Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, and Athens-I have to say Cathy Freeman‘s 400-meter victory in Sydney was the most memorable performance. The entire nation of Australia-including 112,000 spectators screaming their heads off in the stadium-followed Freeman’s race with exultant expectation. It gave me mountainous goose bumps.

China was mortified when hurdler Liu Xiang was unable to go this week because of an Achilles injury. It was obvious he was in too much pain to compete. The biggest surprise in my Olympic experience was pole vaulter Sergei Bubka‘s failure to clear the bar in three attempts at Barcelona. The world record holder’s image was plastered all over the city. In another kind of surprise this week, Stephanie Brown Trafton came out of nowhere-actually, she had some familiarity here as an athlete at Arroyo Grande High and Cal Poly-and became the first American since 1932 to win the gold medal in the women’s discus.

CARDIAC KIDS: Seeking their first Olympic gold medal-after a silver in 2000 and a bronze in 2004-the U.S. water polo women advanced to today’s (Thu., Aug. 21) final against the Netherlands by edging rival Australia, 9-8. Kami Craig of Santa Barbara scored a goal to break a 4-4 halftime tie, and the Americans built an 8-5 lead, but the Aussies came roaring back in the fourth quarter to tie the score. Three-time Olympian Brenda Villa‘s goal with a minute remaining was the decider.

COMEBACK KIDS: When Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser fell behind 6-0 to the Swiss in the third set of their round-of-16 beach volleyball match in Beijing, it seemed the favored U.S. pair was doomed. But they steeled themselves, played great defense, and pulled out a 15-12 victory. A sweep of Germany in the quarterfinals kept Rogers and Dalhausser on track to face the Brazilians in a gold-medal showdown tonight. See a report on their semifinal match at independent.com.

BEACH BANTER: Chris Marlowe and Karch Kiraly are having fun as NBC’s announcers at the Beijing beach tournament. They have to be somewhat repetitious to explain the sport to viewers just tuning in, but their conversational style makes for easy listening. Early in the tournament, Kiraly declared that Nicole Branagh was the best server in the world, just as she plunked the ball into the net. While Kiraly was laughing at himself, Marlowe said, “So much for your claim to be an expert.”

COMEBACK KIDS II: On a non-Olympic note, how ’bout the Santa Barbara Foresters? They twice overcame 5-0 deficits in the National Baseball Congress World Series en route to the championship game, where UCSB’s Mike Ford shut out the Seattle Studs, 2-0. It was the second time in three years Bill Pintard’s ‘Sters went undefeated in Wichita and brought home the trophy. See independent.com/foresters.


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