LONDON — When Michael Phelps hit the water for the anchor leg of the 4 x 200 freestyle relay, it was the equivalent of being handed the ball for a three-run, one-inning save.
“I thanked those guys in the huddle,” Phelps said. “I told them I wanted a big lead. I wanted a biiiiiiig lead, and they gave it to me.”
Ryan Lochte, Conor Dwyer, and Ricky Berens did what they were asked. Just about all the great man had to do on that anchor leg was avoid drowning. He coasted home with a time of 1:44.05 to give the USA a gold medal and — I won’t say more importantly — concurrently make Michael Phelps the most decorated Olympian in history.
This was career medal 19, one more than the haul of Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina, a feisty 77-year-old who had wanted to give him his record-breaking medal, but who was prevented from doing so because the IOC has no real soul and could not possibly deprive some mucky-muck from his moment of glory.
It was capper on a wild-and-woolly evening for Phelps, who had to settle for silver in his cherished 200-meter butterfly when South African Chad le Clos did unto Phelps what he and his mates had done to a few people in Beijing four years ago; namely, beat someone by a touch. Phelps had come to London with 14 gold medals and two bronze.
It’s been an unsettling start for Phelps. First, he finished fourth in the 400-meter individual medley. Next, he had the unusual sensation of having a silver placed around his neck when France’s Yannick Agnel outswam Lochte in the anchor leg of the 4 x 100 freestyle relay. And then he has to suffer the further ignominy of being given yet another silver when le Clos edged him in the 200 fly. For Phelps, this constituted a serious gold-medal drought.
Phelps didn’t look especially pleased as he awaited the call to the podium for the medal ceremony of the 200 fly, but he was very gracious with his remarks afterward, “I’ve gotten to know Chad, and he’s a good guy and a very good competitor. It’s my last one, obviously, and I would have liked to have won. But, you know what? Those are pretty good times, very decent times.”
The 20-year-old le Clos was absolutely exuberant. “It’s been a dream of mine ever since I was a little boy,” he gushed. “I just wanted to race Phelps in the final round, and I’ve beaten him. I can’t believe it. Phelps is my hero, and I love the guy. To beat him, I can’t believe it. You don’t understand what this means to me. This is the greatest moment of my life.”
For the record, le Clos took gold with the time of 1:52.96. Phelps was clocked at 1:53.01. Takeshi Matsuda of Japan took the bronze with a time of 1:53.21.
Phelps may not be wheezing to the finish line, but he’s not too many steps ahead of the posse, either. It’s all about history and legacy now, and there’s nothing wrong with that. “He’s an incredibly talented athlete; I’ve said that many times,” said teammate Ryan Clary, who famously called out Phelps for having less than ideal training habits earlier this summer. “The fact that he’s been able to do what he’s done for so long is a testament to how talented he is.”
Phelps was an Olympian at 15 in Sydney. He finished fifth in the 200-meter butterfly. He came home from Athens with eight medals, six of them gold. I believe you’re somewhat familiar with what he did in Beijing, but in case you’ve happily stumbled into the sports page by accident, be advised that after an interminable build-up he entered eight events and won gold in all.
After training daily for six years, he let his hair down, so to speak, in the immediate aftermath of the enormous Beijing triumph. He took up golf and was quite the social butterfly, making news in parts of the newspaper apart from the sports section. Though he had said he would show up in London, people questioned his commitment, and he was never specific about his goals, either. Even he knew he wasn’t going to win everything he entered this time.
“I just want to be able to look at it five years, 10 years down the road,” he said at the US trials in Omaha. “If I can look back and say I did everything that I wanted to do, then that’s all that matters. I have goals and things that I want to accomplish; that’s the only thing I’m after right now.”
Putting the record total reasonably out of reach must be part of the agenda. The numbers are already staggering. In addition to the 19 Olympic medals he also has 26 world championship golds. So you can see how getting a silver is a bit startling.
“It’s been a pretty amazing career,” he said, “but there are a couple of races to go.”
He’s a certified Ancient Swimmer at age 27, but he’s the one and only Michael Phelps. He’s not done making news; you can be sure of that.