“Because,” he said, “that was the one nobody thought I could win.”
Michael Phelps has more Olympic medals than anyone. He has more Olympic golds than anyone. He has done things that have scrambled the brain — first, in 2004, winning eight medals in one Olympics (something no one had done in a non-boycotted Games), and then, because that did not seem impressive enough, winning eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008. He has dominated races and won others by the outstretched tips of his fingers. He has won under the most intense international pressure and with his mother watching from the crowd.
You get the feeling that someday, when he looks back on it all, Thursday’s victory in the 200-meter individual medley might be the one he remembers with the most pride.
This was the race Phelps was not supposed to win. He’s proven at these Olympics that he’s still an amazing swimmer … but he’s not quite the same. He did not medal in the 400-meter individual medley — the first time since he was 15 that he did not medal in an Olympic event. He was edged out in the 200-meter butterfly, and Phelps had owned that event the way Ray Charles owned the song “Georgia on My Mind.”
Anyway, the 200 IM was Ryan Lochte’s event. Lochte broke Phelps’ world record in the event three years ago, and then for good measure he broke it again. Lochte won the 200 IM at the 2009 World Championships and 2011 World Championships, and he qualified with the fastest time. The question going into this race did not seem to be if Phelps could beat Lochte, but if Phelps could medal at all.
Maybe Phelps liked the doubts. Maybe he didn’t. Athletes are different about that sort of thing. I’ve always thought that some athletes (perhaps like Michael Jordan and Tom Brady) are driven by disrespect, real or imagined, while others (like perhaps Tiger Woods) enjoy being feared as the unequivocal best in their sport. Phelps? Who really knows? He has always kept his own motivations close, and his emotions closer.
On Thursday, he did crack a little bit. He admitted that he spent some time thinking about how it is all winding down. He even talked with Lochte before the race about it being their last. Phelps knew that if he was going to have any chance to win the race, he would have to grab it right away, in the opening 50 meters of butterfly. Phelps is the best butterfly swimmer of all time. After the butterfly, the advantage would swing to Lochte, who is better in both the backstroke and breaststroke. Phelps’ strategy had to be — and was — to go out as fast as he could and make do with what he had left at the end.
He went out blazingly fast. He took the lead immediately. It was an all-out blitz. Lochte never stood a chance. Phelps kept that lead through the backstroke, through the breaststroke, even seemed to build it. After he made his final turn, Phelps was ahead of world-record pace. This was Phelps as he had been in Beijing, as he had been in Athens, the greatest swimmer of all time. He touched the wall at 1:54.27 — just four-hundredths of a second slower than his time when he won the gold medal in Beijing. Lochte was a distant second, at least by swimming terms.
What had Phelps done? This was his 20th medal and his 16th gold, both records. But those are just numbers. He became the first man to win the same swimming event at three straight Olympics. But that is just another record.
No, what happened here was something different, something that in a career of unprecedented achievement is hard to describe. And, sure enough, Phelps had a hard time explaining it. He talked about how proud he was to three-peat. He talked about how he wished he would have brought it home a little faster and broken the world record. He talked about how his career is almost over now — he has just the 100-meter butterfly and the 4 x 100-meter medley relay left.
But two expressions might have told the story better than his words. The first expression came in the instant when Phelps realized that he had won, just after he touched the wall and looked back at the scoreboard. There was no splash of victory, no wild-armed celebration. He looked, well, dumbfounded.
The second expression came on the medal stand, where tears were building in his eyes.
He has been surprising the world for years. It’s possible, just possible, that on Thursday night Michael Phelps surprised himself.