BEIJING - Michael Phelps set out before the Beijing Games with the most audacious goal in the history of the modern Olympics, to win eight gold medals at a single Games.
He did it.
And more. He elevated himself, his family, his team and his country. He made people around the United States - indeed, around the world - pay attention to his sport and to the way an American not only invites challenge but deals with pressure and expectation.
Eight medals, one more than Mark Spitz won in Munich in 1972. This was, of course, the plan that he and his coach, Bob Bowman, had in mind all along. Every year, Phelps lays out his goals on a piece of paper and gives it to Bowman. Traditionally, Phelps has never said a word about what's on that paper. But now the 2008 version can be revealed:
"It all happened here this week," Phelps said Sunday.
Eight medals. At a Games that started on the 8th of August, at 8 p.m., eight being an auspicious number in Chinese culture.
"It's a lucky number for me now, too," Phelps said Sunday "Seeing 8-8-08 and the opening ceremonies starting at 8 - I guess it was maybe meant to be."
"It's one of the greatest things sport in general has ever seen," said Brendan Hansen, who swam with Phelps Sunday on the gold medal-winning, world record-setting 4x100m medley relay, the Americans finishing in 3:29.34 - the eighth medal for Phelps, who swam the third leg, the butterfly.
Aaron Peirsol swam leadoff, the backstroke; Jason Lezak took the freestyle anchor leg. Phelps, in that third leg, swam the fastest butterfly split in the history of the medley relay at the Olympics, 50.15 seconds. In the last race on the last day at the Water Cube, Phelps still had that much left.
"The shame of it," Hansen said a moment later, "is that other athletes are not going to realize how hard what he did is.
"The world is fast at swimming now. The world was not fast when Mark Spitz did his seven.
"It's every part of sport," Hansen said of the range that Phelps displayed here. "It's endurance. It's strength. It's pressure ... he made the pressure putt in the U.S. Open, he won the Tour de France and he knocked out the best fighter in the world in the 16th round with an uppercut.
"He did absolutely everything sport is supposed to be and he did it with a smile on his face, and he's a good kid."
Phelps competed with passion.
He paid repeated tribute to his teammates and to his family.
He exhibited sportsmanship and humility.
In all, he swam 17 times. He won eight gold medals. He set seven world records.
He won in the relays - three times.
He won individually - five events.
He won by dominating - the 200m freestyle, for instance, by 1.89 seconds.
He won by the closest of margins - .01 of a second in the 100m butterfly on Saturday, over Milorad Cavic of Serbia.
He won when faced with adversity - when, during the 200m butterfly, his goggles filled with water and he essentially swam blind, relying on stroke count and experience. He not only won that race, he set a world record.
"The only thing that I would have wanted to change," Phelps said Sunday, "was the 200 fly. I think I can go faster in that event. It was a wardrobe malfunction. But it was something we took care of and we were able to fix.
"Other than that, I think this was a perfect week."
"I'm almost speechless," Peter Ueberroth, the chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee said Saturday after watching Phelps beat Cavic.
"He's beginning to set a whole new standard for his sport and for America," Ueberroth said. "The United States Olympic Committee is very proud of him, as is USA Swimming and basically every citizen in our country and in many other countries.
"He's a true athlete and represents what's best about the Olympic movement."
And, overall, now 16 in his Olympic career, just two shy of the 18 won by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina - a milestone sure to animate Phelps as he turns and sets his sights on four years from now, in London in 2012.
Phelps has said many times that these Beijing Games were almost surely the last time he tries this particular program of eight races, in particular the 400m individual medley.
He suggested Sunday he's likely now to take increasing interest in the sprints. Since he is so good at turns, that would suggest the likes of the 100m free and the 100m back - new frontiers for Phelps to try to conquer.
Because he did here what he set out to do.
And we have all been enriched by it, by the greatness of Michael Phelps and by the privilege of being witness to history.
Speaking at a jam-packed news conference Sunday afternoon, Phelps said, "I've said all along: I want to be the first Michael Phelps. Not the second Mark Spitz."