Eli Manning has won one Super Bowl, and John Elway has won two. Michael Jordan won three NBA Championships — twice — and Lance Armstrong raced his way to seven consecutive Tour de France victories.

But it was Michael Phelps, a lanky kid from Baltimore, in fact, who has set himself apart as perhaps the greatest athlete of our time. By becoming the most decorated Olympian in history, winning eight gold medals in Beijing, Phelps solidified his place in the record books. Not only did he finish first in each of his eight races, but he also set seven world records along the way.

Like a patrolling shark or a speedy bottle-nosed dolphin, Phelps streamlined his way through the water, leaving even former Olympic great Mark Spitz and his seven gold medals from 1972 in his wake, not to mention the competitors that were brave enough to challenge him. While the debate about who is the greatest Olympian of all time will be discussed for ages to come, one thing is for sure: Phelps attained the unattainable, and can be mentioned in the same sentence as the greatest athletes in the world.

Of course, it wasn’t without some close calls that Phelps made Olympic history. His dreams of winning eight golds was nearly brought to an end in the 4×100 freestyle relay when his team trailed to the French with less than 50 meters remaining. A super effort and lengthy stretch by teammate Jason Lezak solidified the win in dramatic fashion. And it was only a hundredth of a second that had Phelps on the top of the medal stand after the 100-meter butterfly.

As the closing ceremonies put an end to the 2008 Olympic games and Americans turn their attention from gymnastics, track and field and swimming, it will be Phelps who will be remembered as the face of these games. Those who witnessed Phelps’ run of athletic accomplishment not only witnessed superiority, but also witnessed a piece of history.