RIO DE JANEIRO — This should be stressful, because he is no longer technically in what would rank as the best racing form of his life. That was years ago, when his body would respond on command. Throttle back, and there would be no problem. The gas was always there.
How, then, did Michael Phelps end up hanging on the lane line, in an Olympic final no less, waiting for the rest of the field to finish as a 31-year-old man? He is a graybeard in swimming terms, someone who could gather people round and tell stories of how things once were. Yet he touched the wall and won the 200-meter individual medley Thursday night at Olympic Aquatics Center, and when he did the result of a race that might have been considered in question only two minutes earlier was instead etched on the granite tablet where all of Phelps’s accomplishments seem to be recorded, because they are all historic.
“That hurt,” he said, “a lot.”
But during the competition, that was impossible to tell. The next finisher Thursday, Japan’s Kosuke Hagino, touched 1.95 seconds after Phelps. In the course of your day, that’s a sip of coffee. In swimming, it’s a long, lazy summer afternoon. Phelps could have knitted a sweater or FaceTimed his infant son. Either way, he had a shockingly easy gold.
“I thought they would all go out fast, and then somebody would hold on,” said Bob Bowman, Phelps’s lifelong coach. “But I thought more than one person would hold on.”
He now has made a career of holding on, and more. And because the numbers are an essential part of who he is and what he is doing here, we offer the latest Phelps tally: four golds in Rio, 22 golds in his career, 26 Olympic medals overall. The gap between that total and the next closest Olympian in history is something like the gap between Phelps and the field Thursday night, because Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina, who Phelps blew past in London four years ago, has 18 Olympic medals.
“I mean, it’s Michael,” said Ryan Lochte, a 12-time Olympic medalist himself. “Nothing surprises me anymore with that guy.”
Spoken for his sport. Spoken for his country. Spoken for the entire Olympic community.
“It’s been a hell of a career,” Phelps said.
Phelps’s performance came on the latest remarkable night for the U.S. swim team, which is outperforming most countries’ entire delegations in Rio. Simone Manuel became the first African-American ever to win an individual gold in swimming, storming to a stunning victory in the 100 freestyle that she shared with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak. And Ryan Murphy, a young Floridian who swims at Cal, won his second gold here, this in the 200-meter backstroke.
Because this is Phelps’s final Olympics — at least, what he says is his final Olympics — it was appropriate that two young athletes (Murphy is just 21 and Manuel 20) who might take his efforts to expand swimming forward won races on the same night he did. That Phelps himself crushed the 200 IM on such a night also seemed to fit.
Though Phelps first made the Olympics in the 200 butterfly, back when he was a floppy-eared, gangly-armed 15-year-old, it is the two events he swam Thursday night in which he had never lost gold at the Games. The final of the 100 fly — presumably the last individual race of Phelps’s career — comes Friday night after he advanced through his semifinal heat in 51.58 seconds, good for just fifth fastest.
By now, Phelps has put his fingerprints all over each event he swims at the Games. But in no event does he have such a personal history with a single athlete as he does with Lochte in the 200 IM, a Bird-vs.-Magic, Manning-vs.-Brady dynamic that has helped push each to widespread recognition in the U.S. Swim fans know the event, one pool length each of the butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. People walking down the street know only the characters that swim it, and that they always seem to be within an arm’s length of each other.
Lochte broke Phelps’s world record at the 2009 world championships in Rome, then dropped it to its current level — 1:54.00 — two years later at the world championships in Shanghai. In that race, he beat Phelps by 16 hundredths of a second, and those two swims still stand as the first- and third-fastest times ever posted in the event.
A rich history, sure. But consider that after U.S. trials earlier this summer, Phelps and Lochte actually owned the top 15 times ever. Hagino was the next fastest in history, a 1:55.07 that was pertinent Thursday night not because of the number, which Phelps and Lochte would have spit at in their primes, but because it came this year.
“It’s kind of crazy to believe that Ryan and I have been on the Olympic team and national team together since 2004,” Phelps said. “That’s the longest I think continuous competitor I’ve ever had. Definitely one of the toughest, too.”
Heading into the night, the culmination of the Phelps-Lochte rivalry was enough to overshadow the night’s three other major developments — Murphy’s gold in the 200 back, an event in which the U.S. has now won at six straight Olympics, Manuel’s groundbreaking gold, and the end of these Games for Missy Franklin, which was somehow simultaneously stunning and predictable.
“I’m someone who is never really satisfied with my results,” Murphy said, and that points to his spot as someone who might fill in for Phelps in Games to come.
Franklin, swimming just before Phelps, was merely in the semifinal of the 200 backstroke — an event she won four years ago in London. But the Missy Franklin here isn’t the Missy Franklin there. She finished 14th of 16 swimmers over two heats, and didn’t advance.
“It’s the story of my week,” Franklin said through tears. “. . . For some reason, it’s just not there right now. I wish I had an excuse, but I don’t, and I’m not going to make up one.”
So it was left to Phelps and Lochte, a race that materialized only over the first 100 meters.
After the backstroke leg, Lochte actually led by a hundredth of a second.
“I felt great the first quarter,” Lochte said. “I don’t know. It wasn’t there at the end. I got tight. It just wasn’t there.”
Phelps is not an extraordinary breaststroker, but he seized the race on that length of the pool, swimming it in 33.51 seconds. “He’s actually spent a lot of time on that,” Bowman said. But it was his freestyle leg that was extraordinary — 27.70 seconds, fastest in the race — and by the time he was 20 meters off the wall following his turn, he could all but coast. He touched in 1:54.66, his fastest time since the London Olympics, the eighth-fastest ever.
When he climbed from the pool, he felt pain. He had less than 30 minutes before the butterfly heat. He grabbed his phone, and exchanged text messages with Ray Lewis, the former Ravens linebacker who he calls a friend. He swam 400 meters, lifted some weights, ate some food – and swam again.
He’s doing all this, an aggressive program for a 23-year-old, at 31. It would seem monumental if, by now, it didn’t seem so ordinary.
“Getting out of the pool may take a little bit more energy and it might be a little bit harder,” Phelps said. “But it’s just as sweet standing on the top of the podium listing to your national anthem play.”
So afterward, he stood on the medal stand — they ought to put a couch up there for him — and listened to the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Two nights ago, following the 200 butterfly win, he laughed because a friend from his hometown of Baltimore called out “O!” just like at Orioles games back home. But that was atypical.
“Pretty much every time I hear it, I’m in tears,” Phelps said. “I was trying to hold it back today. Didn’t quite work.”
Why not cry? He has but two events left. He is winning races, in his fifth Olympics, in all manner of ways. Might as well let the reactions cover everything in history as well.