BEIJING -- A journey that started four years ago after his six gold medals in Athens and included 17 swims over nine days here ended triumphantly for Michael Phelps on Sunday.
Phelps earned his unprecedented eighth Olympic gold medal of the 2008 Olympics as he swam the butterfly leg of the Americans' world-record win in the 4x100m medley relay to close out the swimming competition at the Water Cube.
Jason Lezak held off Eamon Sullivan of Australia in the freestyle leg, with the Americans finishing in 3:29.34. Australia took the silver in 3:30.04 and Japan the bronze.
Lezak said he was inspired by the celebrities on hand to watch history in the making.
"I looked up and I saw Kobe and LeBron, the best basketball players in the world, and I love basketball," he said. "I thought there's no way I was going to let those guys down," he said.
Aaron Peirsol led off in the backstroke leg, Brendan Hansen swam the breast and Lezak anchored, the same three who won gold in Athens. Phelps swam the prelims of that race in Athens, giving up his finals spot to Ian Crocker. The American men have never lost the medley relay in the history of the Olympics.
"Hats off to this guy right here," Peirsol said of Phelps in an NBC interview on the pool deck after the race. "He did something that's never been done before. We're happy to be a part of it."
Hansen called Phelps' 8-for-8 the greatest achievement in sports.
"Every single athlete in the world right now needs to tip their hat to Michael Phelps because what he did this week was amazing," he said.
Phelps tied Mark Spitz with his seventh gold medal a day earlier in the 100m butterfly, winning by the slimmest of margins, .01 of a second over Milorad Cavic.
His quest was almost derailed in Day 2 of the meet in the 4x100m free relay, but Lezak's unbelievable anchor leg kept the quest alive. he touched ahead of Alain Bernard of France by .08.
"It wouldn't have been possible without the help of my teammates." Phelps said. "For the three Olympics I've been a part of, this is by far the closest men's team that we've ever had. I didn't know everybody coming into this Olympics, but I feel going out I know every single person very well. The team that we had is the difference."
Phelps set world records in seven of his eight swims, with only the 100m fly mark not broken. He also won the 400m IM, the 200m IM and the 200m fly, breaking his own world mark in each, and led off the 4x200m free relay.
It was nine days of magical moments for Phelps, and he said the collective effort is what he'll remember most.
"Every race, from one to the other," he said. "It's the whole thing. It's a great experience."
"Everything had to go perfect. Everything had to fall perfectly into place and I was able to have probably the best week of my life."