One might argue if Michael Phelps’ goodbye visit from the Olympic swimming pool is a worthy one, so far picking up a only one gold medal through the 4×200 meters freestyle relay, but nothing is going to take away him becoming the most decorated Olympic athlete in history, with three more potential medals waiting for him.
What’s next? The 200 IM, the 100 meters butterfly and the 4×100 medley relay. Then? The 27 year old will probably consider his future. Maybe compete in one more world championship, the next one coming in 2013, Barcelona as the venue. Maybe that will be Phelps’ swan song, but maybe we’ll see it after the games in London are over.
But suddenly he’s criticized for not being flawless anymore. Anything under 8 gold medals suddenly isn’t enough for a man racing in his fourth Olympic games, who took a long time off after dominating the world’s swimming pools for nearly a decade, pretty much giving up on the 400 IM where he easily dominated, only to make a return to it and looking rather human while Ryan Lochte torched the pool on the first day.
People forget that 27 years of age, especially after so many highs in Phelps’ career, is pretty old… especially for a man who was already swimming in Sydney 2000, finishing fifth in the final for the 200 meters butterfly. Athens already placed him among the greatest in history, at the age of 19, winning six gold medals and two more of bronze, competing in the race of the century in the 200 meters freestyle. It looks such a long time ago. Eight years are a very long time.
So Phelps needs to forget about every bad thing written about him, the unwarranted criticism. They love to build a man up, create impossible expectations for him after he’s answered each and every one of them for a decade and more, and then tear him down for faults he’s bound to have and show at a certain point. Even Ryan Lochte isn’t all conquering in every event, as it seems that being a medley king doesn’t promise success in everything else you do. Specificity is the new trend.
There haven’t been many sadder smiles than Phelps’ as he rose to show his silver medal to the crowd, minutes after being beaten by 20 year old Chad le Clos in the 200 meters butterfly final, ruining his shot at winning three Olympic gold medals at the same event in eight years. There were plenty of other places he wished to be after losing by 0.05 seconds, letting the South African steal the win away due to a bad judgement before touching the wall.
About 20 minutes later he was the anchorman for the United State’s 4×200 freestyle relay team, winning the event by a margin of more than 2 seconds. Even one of the new sensations in men’s swimming, Yannick Agnel of France, couldn’t catch the huge gap the Americans opened and Phelps safely held on to. A third straight gold medal for him in that event, the 15th of his career. He already had more gold than anyone else.
A man, after one of the more disappointing moments in his Olympic career, gathers himself from whatever it is he was going through and goes on to win gold without getting a chance to breathe. Maybe that’s the secret. No rest, just moving forward until there’s nothing left to race for, nothing left to win.
That day is soon, but not yet. Phelps still has history to make, maybe upsetting Lochte in the 200 IM, winning a third gold medal in that event, maybe in the 100 butterfly. Rest, peace and a release from the joy and constraints of trying to live up to impossible expectations is coming soon, but Phelps would love to add a few more gold medals to his collection. Don’t be surprised if he does, but don’t think any less of him if he doesn’t. He’s done enough.