Phelps a study in physical, mental toughness By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo! Sports Dec 29, 3:20 pm EST Michael Phelps celebrates after winning the finals for the mens 100m butterfly at the National Aquatics Center during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. (Jerry Lai-US Presswire) Editor’s note: Michael Phelps’ eight gold medals in Beijing is Yahoo! Sports’ choice for 2008 sports story of the year. Swimming wasn’t their thing. It wasn’t anyone’s thing, though. “A once-every-four-year sport,” is how Michael Phelps himself described it. He was probably being generous. Every time the Summer Olympics rolled around, swimming entered the sporting consciousness, but only for a few days. Other than the proverbial women’s swimmer turned pin-up girl, its impact tended to die in the wake of the final lap. At a superficial level, swimming is a simple sport to understand – jump in the water and beat the other guy to the wall. The intricacies of how that is accomplished, how speed is maximized, how core strength is developed, don’t have to be understood to follow a race. Yet Americans remained ambivalent until Michael Phelps showed up in a giant blue cube of an aquatics center just north of downtown Beijing last August and claimed he was going to capture a record eight gold medals. Then he proceeded to collect them, one after the other, right in primetime in America. That’s what got a lot of people who claimed swimming wasn’t their thing to start watching and, most importantly, wondering. That’s what got Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and some of the other greatest, richest and most famous basketball players in the world to turn out on a Sunday morning to watch a swim race. “Phelpsian” has entered the sporting vocabulary, not so much because of the number of golds he had hung from his neck, but for the crossover respect of how it was accomplished. Bryant and James and every other star athlete and studious coach around the globe didn’t need to understand lap counts or lactate levels to want to understand how Michael Phelps got so mentally tough. They wanted to know whether they could duplicate it. “It was just awesome to see,” Bryant said of witnessing Phelps in person. “It was incredible.” Phelps didn’t just turn the world onto swimming. He turned a fairly dull swimmer into the most intriguing athlete on the globe. Whether your competitive pursuit is basketball, baseball or business, there was something to marvel at with Phelps. He was clearly the most physically gifted, but he needed to find a way to deliver that every time in 17 swims over nine days. Waiting to dethrone him was the rest of the world. To beat Phelps once was more valuable than winning gold in any event he wasn’t in. The second most famous swimmer to emerge from the Games was Milorad Cavic, a Californian competing for Serbia, who lost by 0.01 in the 100-meter butterfly. In each event, Phelps had to hold off the best specialist in the world. That guy could train and focus on beating Phelps. Phelps had to match it, then come back, sometimes on the same day, and match it again. Only this time he had to match it against a different guy with the same focus on a singular victory that the last guy had. And the next guy would. And the next after that. It was like a boxing match with a new opponent every round.