With eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Michael Phelps has ascended to the top of the world.
"This is a dream come true for me," the swimmer said. He not only accomplished his goal of breaking the seven-gold mark of his countryman Mark Spitz in the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, but also went well beyond that.
"I want to be the first Michael Phelps, not the second Mark Spitz," he said.
"Being able to have something like that to shoot for made those days when you were tired and didn't want to be there, when you just wanted to go home and sleep, not work out," he added.
In Beijing, Phelps swam 17 races, totaling an unmatched length of 3,200 meters in the water. He swept the golds in his pet events, overpowered competitors in his weak races and still managed to win when his goggle malfunctioned.
"I went from hitting my head on the wall to win by one hundredth of a second to doing my best time in every event. It's been nothing but an upwards roller coaster. It's been nothing but fun," he said.
Phelps now has 14 Olympic gold medals around his neck, making him the greatest Olympian of all time. At the award ceremony for the 4X100 medley relay, Phelps was given a special certificate by swimming governing body FINA to acknowledge his achievements.
The golds were hard work paying off, Phelps said. "My coach Bob always said to me that it was like putting money in the bank. I guess I put a lot of money in the bank for the last four years, and we withdrew pretty much every penny of it."
With stunning races in the Beijing's Water Cube, Phelps has turned the competition into a one-man show. Many superlatives were piled on the 23-year-old American. Online, he was called the Poseidon, the half-man half-fish, and the extra-terrestrial. Netizens attempted to decipher his success by analyzing the picture of his body, digging out what he eats and even what music he listens to.
Phelps has conquered almost everyone, his teammates, competitors, coaches, swimming officials and of course the spectators.
Australian swim coach Alan Thompson said the presence of Phelps "made a field of great swimmers look ordinary." His teammate Aaron Peirsol said it might be once in a century you see something like Phelps races. "He's not just winning, he's absolutely destroying everything. It's awesome to watch," Peirsol said.
His rival Park Tae-hwan said it was both an honour and a tragic thing to compete with Phelps, because he could only swim for the second. Three-time Olympian Australian Grant Hackett said there are no words to describe Phelps' level of achievement. "In my opinion we'll never ever see it again, it will never be emulated," Hackett said on Sunday.
"I said he could win six or seven, with a little luck maybe eight. That 100 butterfly race, the way he got on that wall, everything lined up for him perfectly. He is an incredible racer," Hackett said.
Phelps won that 100 fly race by the smallest margin -- 0.01 seconds over the runner-up Serbian swimmer. The Serbian team filed an official protest, but had to settle for a silver when the timing system also seemed to be with the phenom.
"Michael Phelps is the greatest ever. He was always first in the race. It was a question to share or not to share first place. Everything we saw, the first arrival was Michael Phelps," said FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu, when explaining the 100m fly race dispute.
Looking back, Phelps admitted there was a bit of luck.
"I guess eight is a lucky number for me, too, now. Seeing 8/8/08 and the opening ceremony started at 8/8/08. Maybe it was meant to be," he said.
Starting swimming at the age of five, Phelps built up from his perfect physique, with an armspan longer than his height, to be the best swimmer in the world.
"I think I'm lucky to have everything I have. I'm lucky to have the talent, the drive and the excitement about the sport. I'm fortunate for every quality that I have," he said.
In 2000, Phelps made his Olympic debut as the youngest athlete on the U.S. team and placed fifth in the 200m butterfly. Months later, he set a new best in the event as the youngest man to break a world record. He won six gold medals and two bronzes in Athens, and seven golds in the Melbourne World Championships last year.
In Beijing, the swimming icon rocketed to another career peak and he was filled with emotions when he looked back at what he has done.
"I've dreamed of a lot of things, and written down a lot of goals. And this one was the biggest one I had ever written down," he said.
"My Mom and I still joked that in the middle school, I had an English teacher saying I'd never be successful. It's from little things like that," he said, elaborating his thoughts when he savored the golds.
The past week has been one of the most emotional one for Phelps. "I just wanted to make sure I took every single moment in, every single swim in, and every moment I had with my team-mates in, so I could remember that. I've had so many great moments here in China," he said.
Wrapping up his Beijing trip, Phelps planned to have the break that he always wanted.
"One of the things I'm looking forward to is going back to the States. I just want to lay in my own bed for five minutes at least and just relax."
"I woke up this morning and saw two of my friends with some fake gold medals around their neck and everyone has gone crazy. I'm excited to seeing them and I look forward not doing anything, just sitting," he said.
Looking into future goals, Phelps said he wanted to keep racing.
"I like to try some other events, maybe not do some of the events I did here. My coach Bob said he wants to start fresh, do things he hasn't done before, trying new training methods," he said.
In the long term, he wants to continue to raise the bar for swimming.
"The goal that I have and working towards is in progress, it's going to take some time to really be where I wanted to be," he said. Phelps' sensational swimming races have skyrocketed the TV ratings in his country.
"I don't want the sport to be an every-four-year sport. We are given much attention every four years, but there isn't really as much exposure for us," he said.
"I want to get people involved in the sport and be aware of what we're doing. In the upcoming years we will see it happen more and more," he said.
"Swimming has changed my life and allowed me to do so many things. To enable the next generation to do more, I can't even imagine what it will be like. I'm excited to watch it change," he said.