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 like 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 on Tuesday, gold again. We’re getting to the point at the Olympic Aquatics Center where we could make a parlor game of picking Phelps’s event and matching it with its celebration. Tuesday, he dragged his bones from the pool after one win, then dove in again — swimming the anchor leg on the Americans’ 4x200-meter relay. Darn it if he didn’t take gold again.
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 the magnitude of what is transpiring here.
“One of the things that is kind of sticking in my head more: that’s a lot of medals,” Phelps said. “We’ve got a lot of medals. It’s just insane. It’s mind-blowing, to think about.”
Slow down, though, because he likely has three more events to go here. But every time he swims, we must consider 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. But there’s also minutia, the little joys in each event.
Tuesday, that 200 fly brought not only joy — but tenacity.
“There wasn’t a shot in hell I was losing that tonight,” he said.
Indeed, one night mixed logistics with history and celebrations. In the old days — read: eight years ago, when Phelps 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 won 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 a leg of the 4x200 free relay.
But he is no longer 23.
“Doing a double like that is a lot harder now than what it once was,” Phelps said, and he slowed down his cadence for emphasis. “That is for sure.”
Still, the 200 butterfly remains Phelps’s “bread and butter,” as he said, 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 which he not only hasn’t relinquished but has improved upon seven times since. If there is a broad debate as to whether Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all-time — 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 ever.
“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 flaw, though, in his 200 fly résumé. In 2012, Phelps arrived in London for what he not only said would be his last 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 beat him that night by five-hundredths of a second.
“What happened four years ago stuck with me, is still with me,” Phelps said. “It was a frustrating race for me.”
So that race in London impacted one in Rio four years later. Le Clos and Phelps began something of a back-and-forth, 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, the spat 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.
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 surrender. 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.
So Phelps’s meet was taking shape: gold in the 4x100 freestyle relay on Sunday, another gold in the 200 fly — with more to come.
“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 included retirement, personal crises and a comeback — one in which Bowman didn’t originally think would include the 200 fly. But Phelps’s ability to swim and win multiple events at a rate others never dreamed of clearly has impacted his sport. 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 second Rio gold, to go with a silver, and Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu won her third gold, 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 relays, though, were another matter. He did not swim the 100 or 200 freestyle at U.S. trials. Yes, he and Ryan Lochte had been the constants on the American teams that won gold in the 4x200 in 2004, ’08 and ’12, and Phelps even anchored that race in London, when he was far from at his top form.
“We just had to keep the tradition alive,” Lochte said.
By the time Phelps 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 4x200 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 team on any leg. Lochte was third, and by the time Phelps took to the pool, the Americans’ advantage was a solid 1.76 seconds. This was a comfortable feeling.
“I didn’t feel like it was going to be in jeopardy,” Bowman said.
There was just one glitch: While Haas and Lochte swam and Phelps went to put on his cap, it ripped. So Dwyer handed him his own, which Phelps flipped inside out. From there, all Phelps had to do was swim four calm, 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.
“We wanted to defend that title, and that’s what we did,” said 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.”
Phelps celebrated again, this time not as demonstrably. When he finally pulled himself from the pool, he joined his teammates in an embrace and whispered to Haas, a 19-year-old rookie.
“I think he said, ‘I’m too old for this,’ ” Haas said.
Yet he is proving he is not. There is more to come: He will swim heats of the 200 individual medley on Wednesday. He still has the 100 fly. And, presumably, the medley relay.
“I’m excited to see what he does the rest of the meet,” Dwyer said, “because once that guy gets hot, you can’t really stop him.”
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. “I wanted to hold him longer,” he said. He had a celebration with his teammates, champions all. And he had two more golds, with still more opportunities to come.