LONDON — The race had been over for nearly an hour, the medal ceremony long finished. The four American swimmers smiled their telegenic grins and held their gold between their thumbs and forefingers for the cameras. But Michael Phelps wasn’t done. He still had a ritual to attend to, the one that began as a 7-year-old at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club: Find Mom.
“I love you so much,” Debbie Phelps said, as she and her only son began crying together.
Michael Phelps had his 19th Olympic medal, more than any athlete has ever won.
Forty-eight years ago in Tokyo, a Soviet gymnast named Larisa Latynina won the last of her 18 medals. Phelps had equaled Latynina’s record earlier Tuesday with a disappointing silver in the 200-meter butterfly, his signature event. But shortly after 9 p.m. London time, before a shrieking sellout of 19,000 at the Aquatics Centre, Phelps and three teammates aimed to add to his collection.
Given a four-length lead by Ryan Lochte, Conor Dwyer and Ricky Berens, Phelps swam an anchor leg of the 4x200 relay that became more of a coronation than a competition for his first gold of these Olympics.
“I think the biggest thing I always said was, anything is possible,” Phelps said nearly 90 minutes after the record. “I put my mind on doing something no one has ever done before, and nothing was going to stand in my way.”
Phelps stood atop a medal podium for the 15th time with the Star-Spangled Banner playing, as he had eight times in Beijing and six times in Athens (where he also won two bronze). But this time meant more, he said. He told his teammates he couldn’t just mouth the words and smile through it like he usually does.
“Sorry, boys, I’m not going to be singing it with you tonight,” Phelps said he told Lochte, Dwyer and Berens. “My eyes were getting watery. It was emotional.”
One of the most poignant tributes to Phelps’s legacy came earlier in the evening form the man who had ended his decade of dominance in the 200 butterfly. South Africa’s Chad le Clos, who just out-touched Phelps at the wall, spent most of his news conference talking about the thrill of beating the man he had idolized since being a sixth-grader watching Phelps perform in Athens.
“Sounds crazy, but I thought I was Michael that last turn,” le Clos said. “He’s everything to swimming. I can’t believe what just happened.”
This is Phelps’s legacy: He has so inspired 12-year-old kids that they’ve now grown up to beat him.
Beyond the 19 medals, beyond the sustained ability to win, the greatest Olympic champion ever deserves commendation for something else: showing up here, knowing he could not possibly duplicate the indomitable performance of four years ago.
Phelps knew this wasn’t going to be Beijing. But he still felt secure enough about his accomplishments to risk the legend of the swimmer who seemingly would not lose.
He has been beaten twice in individual races, including a fourth place in the 400 individual medley on Saturday, but don’t characterize him as the fallible champion who just can’t keep up the young bucks anymore. Rather, celebrate an athletic hero unafraid to show his vulnerability, because he knows all he can possibly give is his best. Finally, Phelps seems of this earth, more man than myth.
And if that doesn’t amount to gold every time he steps in the pool at age 27, oh well. He still competed like hell. Isn’t that what Pierre de Coubertin, the modern founder of the Games, said the Olympics was supposed to be about?
“I’ve been a human being for a while,” he said Tuesday night as the media room busted up in laughter.
After his loss to le Clos, Phelps found solace in the relay, turning and firing off the wall that last 50 meters, heading for home. And history.
Debbie Phelps had what she calls a “D.P. moment” then, tears streaming down her cheeks. Surrounding her were grown daughters Hilary and Whitney; all of Michael’s closest friends, from elementary school through the University of Michigan; his 6-year-old niece, Taylor, the little girl who was so proud of her first basketball award she had to show Michael.
“He was doing an Anderson Cooper interview and photo shoot,” Hilary said, “and he had all his medals out [around his neck], and Taylor came in and said, ‘Uncle Michael, look at my medal.’ She was so proud, turning it in the light and everything. And Michael turned around and said, ‘Hey Taylor, look at mine.’ ”
“He’s been doing this for 12 years. We’re so happy for him.”
The training got old, the monotony of the black line at the bottom of the pool — the things that helped him focus and deal with his diagnosis of ADHD became rote, tired. Lochte was going to be the new king. Even a teammate, Tyler Clary, gave him grief about his work ethic leading up to London. But Phelps found a way to remain contemporary, still be great even as his body incrementally retreated.
When Phelps’s contributions to swimming are totaled, those 19 medals amount to untold millions, ala Tiger Woods’s impact on golf. The sport that used to have Philips 66 as its main sponsor now lures the world’s largest corporations. I still remember Cindy Crawford walking out with a 19-year-old Phelps in Long Beach, Calif., before Athens, hawking designer watches, thinking, “This kid’s talent brought her out here to be part of this.”
That Baltimore teen became the greatest Olympic champion Tuesday night in London, still finding his mother in the stands like he did when he was 7.
“Simple words, but direct from the heart,” Debbie said, crying again, explaining why she told her son she loves him and she’s proud of him. Michael Phelps’s mom paused and wiped her eyes. “You never know what your children are going to grow up to become.”
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