Even through his foggy goggles, smiling underwater once he touched the wall, lifting his head out of the water and turning toward the board for confirmation to see where he finished in the race, Michael Phelps knew he had earned a 15th gold medal. It’s because he has the unprecedented talent and enthusiasm ripping his way through the pool like a streamlined, torpedo-shaped dolphin to embark on a swimming voyage under the sea at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. It’s because he anchored the United States to a gold medal in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay Tuesday night, earning the 19th Olympic medal and the 15th gold of his unimaginable career as a famous, world-class Olympian.
Americans waited all week hoping to see Phelps redeem himself after a sluggish fourth-place finish in the 400-meter individual medley when US teammate Ryan Lochte slaughtered him. The American folks waited all week, looking forward to seeing Phelps respond after swimming in the anchor of the 400 free relay but missing out on the second straight gold medal in these games when Frenchman Yannick Agnel charged on the final leg to catch Lochte and beat the Americans. Then Phelps sounded like, well, an exasperated swimmer who hated to lose when he finished far behind Agnel in the 200 free, not even winning the silver or bronze.
And then just an hour before he was back in the pool for a relay, on the same night he won his first Olympic gold in these games, South Africa’s Chad Le Clos chased down Phelps on the final stroke, winning in 1:52.96 seconds, just 0.05 seconds ahead of Phelps. In a moment when he released his frustration, he flung his cap outraged and settled for silver in one of his favorite events, the 200 butterfly, a competition he normally dominates without struggling to defeat other swimmers in for a fatiguing, laborious fight in the pool. Phelps, as good a swimmer as he is, reacted in a positive way when many felt he had come unglued for his tiredness, boredom and laziness. But as it turns out, Phelps came back kicking his legs and lifting both arms forward over his head, and when he reached the wall on the other side of the pool, he performed a solid flip turn to propel through the water for an eventual first-place finish that gave him and his teammates the gold medal.
His opponent Agnel, surely no slouch, had no shot at closing in on Phelps in the final leg. Beyond that, Phelps needed back up from his teammates Ryan Lochte, Conor Dwyer and Ricky Berens. So before the race, understanding that history was in the making on the night, they all huddled together. Lochte was standing on the deck cheering on his teammate, Phelps, waving his arms, urging him to propel to the finish. He certainly beat everybody in the water, as usual, and came flying in to the wall for his first gold of the London Games with a staggering time of 6 minutes, 59.70 seconds. The remedy was that Phelps uplifted Lochte, following his struggles in two straight events.
It turned out Phelps wasn’t done giving his best, after all. It turned out he wasn’t bored, after all. It turned out he wasn’t tired, either, as some suggested. What was seen, of course, was a re-energized swimmer, a recharged water creature of some sort and, as Phelps becomes the most decorated Olympian of all-time, he still may not be done with events impending this week. In other words, though he doesn’t have his mind set on returning in 2016 for the Rio Games and is leaning toward retirement once he’s completed a quest, Phelps is not quite ready to change from his speedos and into casual clothing. With 19 gold medals and counting, he’s on pace to get more than 20 medals before these games come to a close. This was an ultimate record for the ages, the most breathtaking event of the whole Olympics, a moment in Phelps’ swimming career that he had reached a crescendo and masterfully achieved the impossible, getting the 19th medal to surpass then-Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina’s 18 medals from a relay he won easily.
He has a collection of medals, probably on display at his home secured in a treasure chest in a secret room, as he’s the greatest swimmer ever. Phelps fuels up right with Subway sandwiches, and because he eats fresh, he’s energized and fierce occupying himself with a herculean task. Tuesday night at the London’s Aquatic Centre marked the first time Phelps won the gold since he was photographed sucking on a water bong at a college party in South Carolina. We haven’t lost an ounce of curiosity, infatuated with him when populace have watched him dominate the pool over the years, and obviously treated the beloved icon as if he’s a godlike superhero. It’s not debatable, perhaps not even worth wasting a single breath, to discuss whether or not he’s the greatest swimmer ever. His regiment of medals is a testimony to sheer greatness, and trouncing everyone else in these games is glaring that he’s surely No. 1 on the list, at least he is on mines.
By now, closing in to the end of his colorful career, he’s simply the most dominant competitor and the greatest Olympian the sport has ever seen, marked as the G.O.A.T and swam exceptionally to earn that title. Someone of Phelps’ pedigree approaches these games with diligence, persistence and conviction. But he also needed to put in long months, long days and hours of grueling and extensive training to regress into shape. A few attributes to Phelps’ advantage are his long torso and incredible wingspan, and the fact he’s a skilled athlete blossoming into an all-time Olympian great — more famous than Jesse Owens and Mark Spitz, amazingly so. It’s not so shocking come to think of it, when he surpassed Spitz in Beijing at the 2008 Summer Games. Couple that with 14 gold medals he won in the land of the Great Wall of China and even his contributions with the men’s 4X100M freestyle relay team that pulled off one of the unthinkable comebacks in Olympic history four years ago.
The celebration of what he’s reached as far as a unique plateau no other Olympian can ever match is very appreciated, and with all due respect, Phelps deserves cheers. Come now, he’s made every American proud to be an American, as folks debate his place in history and whether he’s the greatest Olympian ever. But there’s no need to argue when his amount of medals separates him from the typical amateur athlete. The medals speak for themselves, not Phelps. The achievements speak volumes, not Phelps. The longevity and dominance in four straight summer games speaks loudly, and I mean loudly. Phelps is a damn good swimmer.
He knows that, you know that, I know that. You can’t deny it. You can’t imagine it. You can only live it. Not a myth. Not an imaginary story. That’s reality.
For now, the nation will continue to watch him pile up medals with three events remaining — the 200 IM, the 100 fly and 4×100 medley relay. As he takes pride in this country, you and I take great pride in him, not only because he’s the most decorated athlete in Olympic history but because he represents our country every four years. Once he decides to leave an ineradicable legacy behind, we’ll talk about Phelps for many years to come.