The Olympic record-breaking swimmer has gone from unbeatable to fallible to dominant again. But what happens now that he's about to retire?Reuters
For three straight Olympics, Michael Phelps has been the show. There have been athletes who won medals in three consecutive Olympics—Al Oerter, the great discus thrower, won medals in four Olympics in a row. But Phelps has been the center of attention for three straight, from 2004 in Athens through Beijing 2008 and now in London. On Wednesday, two-time gold medal winner and head of the London Olympics Sebastian Coe caused some controversy when he remarked that he didn't think Phelps was the greatest Olympic athlete, "but he's certainly the most successful." Well, then, the most successful.
The gold Phelps picked up Friday in the 100-meter butterfly was his record 21st medal, 17 of them gold—both all-time Olympic records. He is the first man to win three consecutive gold medals in two events, and, incredibly, he managed to pole vault—if I may borrow a metaphor from another Olympic event—over fellow American Ryan Lochte as the biggest story of the London Olympics. (Today is Phelps' last Olympic event, the 400-medley relay, in which Lochte will join him competing in an Olympic contest the U.S. men have never lost.)
What a difference six days makes. After losing to Lochte in the 400-meter individual medley last Saturday—in fact, not merely losing to Lochte but to two other swimmers as well—Phelps looked, for the first time in anyone's memory, tired and stunned—old, by the standards of his own profession if no one else's. Lochte's words, however well intentioned, must have stung Phelps when he read them: "I think I'm kind of in shock right now. I know he [Phelps] gave it everything he had. That's all you can ask for." As it turned out, Phelps had a lot more to give, a fact which may have surprised both swimmers.
Phelps's photo finish victory over Lochte in the 200 IM Thursday will probably be, for many, the signature moment of this Olympics. It was all the more poignant because Phelps's pathetic exit from the pool after the 400 IM made him human in a way he had never seemed before.
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In the water Phelps had never been all that interesting. He was a machine; he won so easily in nearly all his races, with 6 gold and 2 bronze in Athens 2004 and a ridiculous 8 gold medals in Beijing in 2008.
Out of water, he was a teenage boy—albeit one diagnosed with ADHD—who seemed to have few interests in the world outside of rap records. When I talked to him 8 years ago for Interview magazine, days before his 19th birthday, he told me DMX's "Party Up" was his favorite, "especially the one that runs for nine minutes"—and what he was going to gorge on during breaks in his training regimen. His favorite was "French vanilla ice cream served in big-ass waffle ones with so many Butterfinger chips that you've got to fight to get to the ice cream." He was a Tom Sawyer for the new century.