The Olympic record-breaking swimmer has gone from unbeatable to fallible to dominant again. But what happens now that he's about to retire?
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.
But Tom Sawyer, to tell the truth, gets just a little bit dull. It was only when Phelps began to show a little Huck Finn, after Beijing, when a character flaw or two popped up that people realized he might really be interesting after all. On talk shows he let his hair down, and his earthy—and sometimes salty—replies to questions raised a few eyebrows but also won him some fans. It wasn't that he said anything shocking, his answers just didn't seem prepared like those of other prominent athletes, such as Alex Rodriguez, Tom Brady, or LeBron James. When he spoke of partying through the weekend or his discovery that love might involve some complications he sounded like he might actually have a life when he finished toweling off.
Then, in 2009 some jerk who was partying with him used a camera phone to snap a photo of Phelps inhaling from a bong. Within hours his image had an entirely new dimension. He stumbled through a tearful public apology and was suspended from competition by USA Swimming for three months. The incident, though, did no lasting harm to his reputation. The final verdict was, as David Letterman put it, that Michael was "just being Michael." Or rather, just being Michael in his mid-20s.
As it turned out, getting older didn't mean becoming a hedonist, as it certainly would have meant to many of his fans if they had been in the prime of life with 16 Olympic medals to their credit. It meant getting involved with younger, less fortunate people. He established the Michael Phelps Foundation, a grant program for aspiring young swimmers, which he supported with his name and money and, more importantly, his time.
It also meant preparing for yet one more Olympics, one in which, in swimming terms, he was no longer a young man and would, for the first time in his life, no longer be the favorite. Until Ryan Lochte came along, there seemed no one on the world stage that he could measure himself against—and certainly no one capable of taking endorsement deals and magazine covers from him, as Lochte did this past summer.
So where does Phelps go from here? He swears that he will not be swimming (one assumes this means competitively) "past the age of 30" and that his one desire is "just to relax, not to answer to anybody, not have anyone tell me where to go, when to go there, what to do, just be on my own time."
But surely before long it will dawn on him that age 27 he has been an adult for a long time now, and the only person really telling him what to do or where to go has been himself. And after a few vats of ice cream and Butterfinger chips and some all-weekend parties, he'll surely realize that the most fruitful way for him to spend his time will be going to work at training kids to be little Michael Phelpses.