Chinese in Awe of American Swimmer Michael Phelps

Phelps inspires awe, while Chinese gymnasts roll on.

ByABC News
September 25, 2008, 6:27 AM

BEIJING, Aug 13, 2008— -- At the age of 23, it took Michael Phelps just five days in Beijing to surpass American track star Carl Lewis, American swimmer Mark Spitz, Soviet gymnast Larysa Latynina and Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi to become the winningest Olympian in history.

"I'm almost at a loss for words," Phelps told The Associated Press.

Today at the Water Cube, Phelps picked up two more gold medals, making it five straight golds -- and each win set a new world record. Phelps won in the 200-meter butterfly, swimming blind after his goggles filled with water. And Phelps was part of relay team that later struck gold again, in the 4x200-meter freestyle.

Following his six gold medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics, Phelps now sits alone as the only athlete to win 11 gold medals.

"Growing up I always wanted to be an Olympian. Now to be the most decorated Olympian of all time, it just sounds weird saying," Phelps told the AP.

Phelps admitted capturing the medals record was a distraction. "I was just trying to focus on my next race, but I just kept thinking, 'Wow, greatest Olympian of all time.' It's a pretty cool title."

His competitors, left in his wake, are in awe. "He is just a normal person, but maybe from a different planet," said Russia's Alexander Sukhorukov, who managed to win a silver against the Phelps-led American juggernaut.

And the Chinese are also duly impressed.

Although he's not contributing to China's closely watched medal count, Phelps has accumulated millions of Chinese fans as he collects gold medals in a country whose utmost priority is bringing home as much gold as humanly possible. Phelps swims like a fish, some Chinese fans say with admiration.

"Phelps is the merman legend of the whole world," a blogger wrote, referring to the male version of the mythical mermaid.

"World records tremble when they see Phelps," a blogger declared this morning.

"It is a tragedy to be born in the same time with a sport genius, how many superstars have been eclipsed by the Phelps' legend?" lamented another impressed blogger.

Riding a wave of economic development and scientific advances, the Chinese are asking openly if they, too, could produce a Phelps. Readers of the People's Daily, China's most widely circulated state newspaper, wondered if Phelps could have succeeded as a Chinese athlete.

"If Phelps was born in China, he might not be as successful as he is now," a reader wrote in response to the news that Phelps picked up two more gold medals. Journalists and readers asked how much of his dominance Phelps owes to the American system of training, dramatically different from China's, which is modeled on the old Soviet system.

Readers who posted comments wondered how much state-of-the-art American facilities and the family-oriented, friendly training environment at home mattered in his success.