Thursday, August 2, 2012

Michael Phelps’ Historic Feat Enriches Legacy

On Thursday night, he became the king of swimming, the face of a sport that has taken over the Summer Olympics during a generation that Michael Phelps has swam for gold medals in the age of the Swimming Gold Rush. Once again, as winning is common, he amplified his incremental legacy at the London Aquatics Centre and remarkably is the most decorated Olympian ever, piling up his 20th medal at the 2012 London Games — and as Phelps finishes his outstanding career on top — he can retire from the sport with a bang.

If this is the end, he could wind up with an offer and television deal to broadcast swimming competitions for a TV network, or he may even get an itch and compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, which his mother, Debbie Phelps, is hoping he decides not to call it quits with a sport he’s dominated so well. And at these games, he’s now a 20-time medalist, 16 of them gold, and no doubt will go down as the greatest Olympian of all-time.

This was a race for Phelps to cherish for sure, an individual swim that will send him into retirement on a high note. As he celebrated at the medal ceremonies, again, as always, Phelps stepped onto the podium, smiled as the national anthem blasted out of the loudspeaker and stared into the air and fought back tears as the United States flag rose to the rafters. It marked the first time at these games that he won an individual gold medal, finally looking like the old Phelps we all knew so well in Athens and Beijing.

Four years ago, he stood on the podium every night, as he did today, with gold draped around his neck. Eight years ago, he collected more gold than Scrooge McDuck, and surely, America applauded him for becoming a then-14-time Olympic gold medalist. That was then. This is now. He was finally swimming like a streamlined dolphin, if not better, a human fish darting his way through the water. He had won the 200-meter individual medley and beaten his rival who burned him last weekend, teammate Ryan Lochte.

Now maybe he can attend a Ravens’ home game and feature on the Jumbotron in a video shot and be given a standing ovation. Now maybe he can make a late-night TV appearance with David Letterman. In what could actually be his final Olympics, Phelps is swimming as someone who is refocused and rejuvenated, willing to continue his quest for gold. He is, incredibly, a coveted and exuberant swimmer, be it painstaking training that has been his means to fame and fortune throughout a lustful generation of unthinkable performances and massive records, done brilliantly in the pool from Sydney to Athens to Beijing to London. There still are two more events remaining on his schedule, and by the time competition comes to a close, he can fly back to his hometown of Baltimore with five golds and two silvers in seven races. The race he will remember more than the rest would be the 200 IM at these summer games.

It was payback, in a sense, a way to get even with his teammate. This time around, he edged out Lochte by .63 seconds and won a gleaming gold medal to add to a priceless collection. Amazingly but realistically, Phelps’ long torso helped him paddle through the water. This time around, as expected, he crashed into the wall to secure Olympic gold for likely the last time individually if he doesn’t claim the gold medal in his last individual race and doesn’t chose to come back in four years to have yet another historic feat that he navigates so brilliantly and incredibly.

This time around, as anticipated, he’s not only the most decorated Olympian of all time with 20 medals, but also the first male swimmer to win a third straight 200 IM at the Olympics. In his first event, he was sluggish and lethargic, getting out of the water lost and dazed. But after he was blown out of the water on the night of the 400-meter individual medley by gold medalist Lochte, Phelps never seemed lazy, or complacent, or bored. There were times, such as last weekend, when he looked weary and uninspired but it just so happened that Lochte burned him in The Great Race. And suddenly, he won and made it clear that he’s still the greatest to ever touch water in these Olympics.

He wasn’t here just to get his feet wet, or wasn’t here to be anointed for what he’s done in the past, or wasn’t even here for prestige but arrived to London optimistic and fit to win more Olympic gold. He said he plans to retire, but sometimes athletes get that itch and then decide to come out of retirement to compete again, emotionally missing the sport they truly are fond of committing much of their life to. Phelps, to be straightforward, may deliberate on his retirement and could end up coming back four years from now. But he likely won’t swim in Brazil for the 2016 Summer Olympics, and the last thing he wanted was to be denied of his individual gold.

The swimming competition is more competitive, with Phelps swimming like he’s obligated to the sport, and he has reigned atop the sport for four straight summer games. More and more swimmers are stroking along to join the chlorine-soaked fun, with Phelps jumping into the water with much inspiration and enthusiasm and having the knack for swimming. For much of these Olympics, it was a slew of nostalgia and greatness. For much of these games, we relished shouting for one of the best and well-accomplished athletes in American history. For much of these swimming pool activities, we savored witnessing Phelps make a splash and transcend to the top of the world — a heartfelt story we’ll dwell on for ages.

This is something we’d be able to tell our children, our grandchildren, and if we’re bless to live long enough, maybe even or great grandchildren. The remarkable achievements in an unparalleled swimming career cannot be duplicated and no Olympic athlete will ever surpass Phelps’ historic record-setting 20 medals. Just when we thought it was the end of an era, he was no longer flat, weary or worn down but had sighed in relief and was finally back to chase greatness. People doubted Phelps about swimming in his fourth Olympics. But it lasted no time. The next day he was back in the water, where he amazed spectators and our fellow Americans, apparently consuming our consciousness. Phelps is not only a 20-time medalist, he’s one of the nation’s popular icons, representing a reflection of nationalism.

This also brings back memories of his historic eight gold medals four years ago. In this day and age, Phelps is obviously not unbeatable, flashing back to the days he’d paddle rapidly through the liquid and out-touch all swimmers for the gold medal. You can’t argue that he’s not among the best. He is among the best, but can’t race as good and hard as he once did. After that lousy performance last week, he swam solid the rest of the way to end his colorful career. He won this race without getting humiliated and worked his long arms and legs to hold the lead, until he had to make the transition to the backstroke.

A weakness for Phelps, Lochte hastily snuck up on him, swimming faster than ever, gaining confidence and suddenly keeping pace with him. But it wasn’t enough, not to beat Phelps, who stayed in the lead and broke away from the other swimmers in the freestyle to win. He touched the wall and then turned his head to look at the scoreboard for the results. As expected, Phelps won the race and Lochte finished second for the silver. When they both reached for the wall, they were fatigued, barely able to climb out of the pool.

We’ll always remember Phelps. We’ll always embrace these particular games, ones he competed in, ones that he enriched the nature of swimming. He will go down as one of the best American athletes the Olympics has ever seen. He’s a champion but he’s also one of the greatest Olympians for generations to come.