Michael Phelps came second in the butterfly before winning gold in the relay.Six golds, two bronze in AthensEight golds in BeijingOne gold, two silver in LondonBiography: Up Close With Michael Phelps
The last two medals in Michael Phelps’s record collection represented them all, and his singular Olympic journey to win them, too.
One was silver, in the 200 metres butterfly. For all but the last stroke, it was gold, but South Africa’s Chad le Clos outreached him at the wall, leaving Phelps with a so-called minor medal.
This was Athens revisited. Phelps was 19 then and not yet immortal. After winning bronze behind Ian Thorpe in the 200m freestyle, dubbed the race of the century, he made as if by reflex for the gold-medal place on the podium. It was a forgivable slip. His time was coming and it would be an era.
In an odd way, this was also Beijing revisited. Faced with occasional snideness, Phelps has always said none of his medals had come easily. In Beijing, his eight-from-eight campaign was so nearly torpedoed in the 100m butterfly, in which he held out Serbian Milorad Cavic by a 100th of a second. At the wall, Cavic glided, but Phelps, having misjudged, took an extra, lunging half-stroke. It looked to be a stroke of misfortune, but in fact proved to be an inadvertent masterstroke.
At the wall last night, Phelps glided and le Clos stroked. So does history make its own reparation. Thorpe especially felt for Phelps. ”I wanted this for him,” he said.
But Phelps was as he mostly is, even-humoured, as he re-accustoms himself to the view from the lower reaches of the podium. Besides, losing one gold does not seem so disastrous when you already have 14 (which would become 15 soon after).
Phelps owned up to human error. Mortal again, but still immortal, too.
Tuesday’s other medal was more Phelpsian, the invincible of Beijing reprised, ahead not just by lengths but years. Partly, it was illusion. Phelps’s teammates in the 4x200m relay gave him such a head-start for the anchor leg that he was able to coast to gold almost in clear water. If not an armchair ride, it was at least an aquatic catapult.
This was his 19th Olympic medal, surpassing the 18 of Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina. Now 77, Latynina is in London for these Olympics and offered to present Phelps, who she has met and admires, with his record-breaking medal. But the IOC declined; some wig needed to big himself. Latynina went with her daughter to the gymnastics instead.
So Phelps fulfilled his destiny. The competitive lifespan of most sporting greats is short, crowded, hectic, and oh-so exposed. Phelps has spent his in the public eye, though half-submerged. It seems so recently that his Olympic journey began. In Sydney, he was 15 and really just an idea. In Athens, he was still a boy, already a wonder, but still full of wonder himself, deferring happily to Thorpe. But he already displayed the sangfroid that has served him so well. Some spruiked six gold for him, but not Phelps; he would have been content with one, he said.
In Beijing, he was at the peak of his powers, indestructible, untouchable, able to part the waters. Leisel Jones won a long-awaited gold medal, but said what she would cherish most from Beijing was the privilege to watch Phelps. Yet out of the pool, he cut an endearingly normal figure, without airs or graces. As much as the medals, he said, he wanted to relieve swimming of its all-bar-two-weeks-every-four-years anonymity in the US.
Between Games, a little misadventure ensued, possibly the only time he has faltered under the burden of being Michael Phelps. No more egregious drug stain than this marijuana moment has attached itself to Phelps.
So he arrived in London a little older and wiser, more vulnerable, but more at ease with himself, too. For last night’s night’s 200m fly, the crowd’s roar drowned out the announcement of Phelps. Butterfliers look like swimming kangaroos, and for three-and-ninth-tenths laps, Phelps was a big red. Then the spotlight froze him. It upped the premium on the relay. Phelps implored his teammates, saying: ”I want the biggest lead possible.” He got it. ”I did start to smile with 20, 25 metres to go,” he said. ”It was a cool feeling.” The crowd roared throughout, and was still humming at night’s end.
He remains determinedly level. As much as he inspires awe, he feels it. For an immortal, Michael Phelps is palpably flesh and blood.
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