LONDON — In real life, age creeps up on us silently and slowly. A gray hair. A twinge in the back. A new and deep appreciation for a nap. Maybe one day you turn on the car radio and don’t recognize any of the songs your hear. Maybe one day you look at a photo of how you used to look and see what the years have done. It can be so subtle.
Age, though, is never subtle for the greatest athletes. No. They can get old suddenly, shockingly and, worst of all, conclusively. A hitter times the fastball just like always … only this time he fouls it back. A receiver runs under the deep pass … only this time the football ticks off his fingertips. A defender works into perfect position … and the scorer rushes by and gets to the basket anyway. It happens, and you can tell from the way the athletes talk, the way they act, that it feels all wrong. It’s a cosmic mistake. It’s a mere speed bump. All they need to do is adjust. All they have to do is work harder. But then it happens again. And again.
It’s the same story, every time, for every athlete who has ever grown old. Unlike more or less every other rule, there are no exceptions.
And at the heart of that cruel rule are those who race against the clock. They get old by milliseconds. Michael Phelps is the greatest swimmer in recorded history. He has already won 16 Olympic medals, 14 of them gold. He has set 29 world records by himself and played a part in 10 more as a member of a relay. He is only 27 years old, the same age as his great rival, Ryan Lochte.
On Saturday in London, Phelps swam his event, the 400 individual medley. It is not his event by choice — he has said many times how much he hates it. You cannot blame him for that. It’s a grueling thing to swim 100 meters of butterfly, 100 meters of backstroke, 100 meters of breastroke and, finally, 100 meters of freestyle. It takes precision, will, power and a genius for fighting through pain. Nobody ever did it as well as Phelps. The last eight world records set in the 400 IM? Right: Phelps set all of them.
But on Saturday, something was wrong. It was clear from the start of the competition. In the morning heats, he qualified eighth in a field of eight — he just barely made it. Still, the general feeling was that this was Michael Phelps — the greatest. He was holding something back for the final. He was pacing his body for the big performance. He announced to everybody that, hey, nobody ever won a gold medal in qualifying. He was setting everyone up.
Only … no, he wasn’t. He was still breathtakingly good in the final, of course. His time of 4:09.28 was well off his world-record finish of 4:03.84 in Beijing, but it would have been good enough to win every Olympic final before Phelps started dominating the sport. But it wasn’t close to good enough in the sport he pushed forward. This time, Lochte dominated the race, start to finish, and beat Phelps by more than four seconds. Brazilian Thiago Pereira won silver — his first medal at his third Olympics. Japan’s Kosuke Hagino had the swim of his life and set the Asian record. He won bronze.
And Phelps finished fourth. It was jarring for all of us to watch. But, beyond that, it seemed jarring to him. When Phelps touched the wall, his jaw dropped and he looked at the timing board as if it had to be some technical mistake. That look said so much more than Phelps did; “It was just a crappy race,” was his highlight quote. That look seemed to bring to life every feeling of what it is to find that the years have passed, that the body isn’t quite the same, that the end draws just a little bit closer.
Of course, Phelps is still a remarkable and overpowering swimmer. He is still in position to win six medals, and some or all of them could be gold. He’s still the best butterfly swimmer in the world — both the 100- and 200-meter — and he’s still a huge part of the United States’ relay teams. And he will have one more shot at Lochte at a shorter distance: the 200 IM. But that’s really Lochte’s event now. Anyway, Phelps won’t suddenly start flapping around in the pool and asking for someone to throw him a life vest.
But age isn’t that blunt. The years are not that transparent. There was something unmistakable about Saturday’s race. Phelps asked his body to fire. It had always answered that call. And this time, it didn’t. This time, it couldn’t.
That’s the torture of age. You don’t know when it will hit you. You don’t know how it will hit you. “It happens to all of us,” Ian Thorpe said on the BBC of Phelps’ bad race. Thorpe was an earlier version of Phelps, the most dominant swimmer in the world. Now he’s broadcasting for the BBC. It happens to all of us.
And when it does happen, well, it’s a hard thing to accept. After all, Lochte, as mentioned, is 27 years old too, and he’s peaking now as a swimmer. In fact, Lochte is actually a few months OLDER than Phelps; he will turn 28 in just a few days. But age doesn’t play fair. And it doesn’t play equal. The years are being kinder to Ryan Lochte. They are giving him a reprieve. The only thing that can be said for sure is that it won’t last forever.