RIO DE JANEIRO – Years from now, it will be difficult to imagine that there were questions about what Michael Phelps might do here at age 31, in his fifth Olympics. The fact that he was out of his sport, then nearly out of his head, could seem utterly forgettable. What will remain are the nights such as Tuesday, when he touched the wall first, gestured to the crowd that he wanted to hear more, then straddled the lane line and raised both arms.
Bronze the statue like that, perhaps? Yet those are the particulars from just one race on just one night, the 200-meter butterfly, gold again. We’re getting to the point at the Olympic Aquatics Center at which we could make a parlor game of picking Phelps’s event and matching it with its celebration, because with Phelps there always seems to be one more. Tuesday, he dragged his bones from the pool after one win, then dove in again – swimming the anchor leg on the Americans’ 4×200 free relay. Darn it if he didn’t win gold again.
“We wanted to defend that title, and that’s what we did,” said Ryan Lochte, who has joined Phelps on the winning relay in four straight Olympics. “When it comes down to it, the USA, we know how to race.”
So flip two more beads over on Phelps’s abacus. The gold in the 200 fly was the 20th of his career, the gold in the relay his 21st, he now has 25 total Olympic medals, and pointing out these are records doesn’t fully convey their enormity. Plus, he has three more races to go here.
So there is the totality of the accomplishment over what is now an athletic lifetime – from teenager to father, from loving his sport to hating it to loving it again – that can seem overwhelming. But there’s also minutia, the little joys in each event.
Tuesday, that came both in logistics and celebrations. In the old days – meaning, eight years ago, when he was at his mental and physical peak – swimming two exhausting events for the most significant prizes his sport has to offer would have slipped off his back like water as he emerges from the pool. In Beijing that summer, when he brought unprecedented attention to swimming by winning a ridiculous-to-think-about eight gold medals, he swam “doubles,” as such two-races-in-one-session events are called, four times in the course of an eight-day meet. That includes precisely the double he pulled off Tuesday: the final of the 200 fly and the 4×200 free relay.
“It’s remarkable,” said his lifelong coach, Bob Bowman. “Given not just his age, but everything that’s transpired since London and before London – just the totality of it.”
That includes retirement, personal crises and a comeback. But through it all, the 200 butterfly remains Phelps’s signature event, the race in which he qualified for his first Olympics as a 15-year-old back in 2000, the one in which he set the world record in 2001, a world record he hasn’t relinquished, a world record he has improved upon seven times since – including on the night of that double in Beijing. If there is a broad debate as to whether Phelps is the greatest Olympian ever – and with each medal, he makes that status harder and harder to assail – there is absolutely no taking away the micro-view within his own sport that he is the greatest 200 butterfly racer of all-time.
“I was watching Michael on TV when I was young,” Masato Sakai of Japan, the silver medalist Tuesday, said through an interpreter.
That’s his status now, simultaneously baddest athlete in the pool and ancient hero. There was one chink, though, in his 200 fly résumé. In 2012, Phelps arrived in London for what he not only said would be his final Olympics, but at a time when he had what could fairly be described as a hate-hate relationship with his sport. South Africa’s Chad le Clos, a friend at the time, beat him that night by five-hundredths of a second.
Thus began something of a back-and-forth between the two, with Le Clos sniping at Phelps from last year’s world championships, from which Phelps was suspended because of a drunk driving arrest. In a world in which the Internet allows not a smirk nor a scowl to escape, it culminated Monday night before the semifinals of the 200 fly. In the “ready room,” where swimmers fidget and palpitate in the moments before they stride to the starting blocks, le Clos worked some shadow boxing into his pregame routine. Cameras caught Phelps sitting behind him, nothing short of a death glare on his face. Maybe it wasn’t the purest form of hatred. It simply looked like it.
“Everybody has their own race strategy of what they do,” Phelps said. “If that’s his, then that’s his. I tried to not really pay attention.”
That was enough to color what could be the marquee race in an Olympic swim meet that seems to offer two of those a night. But Phelps essentially tore the other names from that marquee. After 50 meters, he trailed only Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh, second to Phelps in the 200 fly in Beijing, the reigning world champion in the event.
From there, he just about ended it. Phelps made a powerful turn and took the lead. That propelled him to the fastest leg any of the eight swimmers turned after the opening 50 meters, a 28.50-second length that gave him a lead he wouldn’t give up. He dusted le Clos, who faded to fourth, and Cseh, who wound up seventh, touching in 1:53.36, just four hundredths of a second ahead of hard-charging Sakai of Japan, who made up a full second on Phelps over the final 50 and took silver.
This all came on a night when two other Phelps-like characters continued their romps here. Bethesda’s Katie Ledecky won the 200 free for her third gold, and Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu won her third, setting an Olympic record in the 200 individual medley, a race in which American Maya DiRado took bronze.
When the Rio Games opened, and Phelps led the American team in as the flag bearer, the world knew he would contend in the 200 fly. The relay, though, was another matter. He did not swim the 200 freestyle at U.S. trials. Yes, he and Ryan Lochte had been the constants on the American teams that won gold in 2004, ’08 and ’12, and Phelps even anchored that race in London, when he was far from at his top form.
By the time he entered the water for that anchor leg Tuesday night, some 75 minutes had elapsed since he emerged from the water in the 200 fly. Though the U.S. coaching staff could have gone with fresher swimmers in the 4×200 final – Rockville’s Jack Conger, for instance, swam the fastest leg on the American team in Tuesday afternoon’s preliminary heat – it chose the experience of four-time Olympian Lochte, just seven hundredths slower than Conger in prelims, and Phelps.
The result: Conor Dwyer led off, and handed a lead of more than half a second to Townley Haas, who crushed his swim – 1:44.14, fastest of any swimmer on any leg. Lochte was third, and by the time Phelps took to the pool, the Americans’ advantage was a solid 1.76 seconds.
There was just one glitch: When Phelps went to put on his cap, it ripped. So Dwyer Phelps, perhaps the greatest closer ever, had to do was swim four calm, easy, stress-free lengths. He did, turning in a solid leg of 1:45.26 for a winning time of 7:00.66 – 2.47 seconds faster than runner-up Great Britain, gold yet again.
“Since 2004, when we first won it, we just had to keep the tradition alive,” Lochte said. “Everyone did their part.”
When he finally pulled himself from the pool, he spoke to Haas, a rookie.
“I think he said, ‘I’m too old for this,’ ” Haas said.
So pick a moment, from a night or from a career, from the wide-angle or the zoom lens. Phelps on Tuesday night flexed and taunted and gloated. But he also soaked in “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which never gets old. He kissed his baby boy, Boomer, sitting in the stands. He had a celebration with his teammates, champions all. And he had two more golds, with still more opportunities to come.