LONDON — There were times in the past four years when the water was still. For days at a time, Michael Phelps didn’t bother to show up at the pool, never rippled the surface. He stayed missing so long that his coach, Bob Bowman, wondered whether they “were going to get this thing done.” But eventually — reluctantly but determinedly — Phelps towed that long torso back into the liquid, where the greatest swimmer of all time belonged.
Phelps won The Great Race of the London Games, out-surging Ryan Lochte at the wall like a wave crashing on a rock to claim the gold medal in the 200 individual medley. Sometimes Phelps has made winning look like an offhanded affair, and that’s been a source of misunderstanding in his four-Olympics career. But on this night, we understood how much he cares about the sport of which he has rewritten all the records, after seeing his weary, tear-glazed look on the medal podium at the London Aquatics Centre. Because the man is tired. He has worn himself out chasing greatest-everness, and no one has realized just how much, except perhaps his fellow compatriot Lochte, who tried to do something Phelpsian here and failed.
As Phelps waited to step up to the medal podium, he propped himself against a wall. Outwardly he looked like he always has. Idle. Habitually nonchalant. In fact, he thought his quivering legs might buckle.
“I was hurting,” he said. “I was in a lot of pain. My legs were hurting bad, and I needed to lean against something.”
With every race in London it becomes more apparent not only how comprehensive and spanning Phelps’s achievements are — great God almighty, 20 Olympic medals, 16 of them gold — but how hard-won they are. Whether Phelps had enough push left in him for an individual gold medal in London was so in doubt that the day before the race, Bowman tried to motivate Phelps by barking at him “until he gets mad at me and goes home in a pout.”
It was so in doubt that with 20 meters to go on that final freestyle leg, Lochte thrashed right alongside him, about to overtake him, and Phelps’s mother Debbie clutched her hands together up in the stands, her eyes wide and alarmed, shouting, “Yes, Yes, Go! Go! Go!”
It was so in doubt that when Phelps touched the pad, he whirled so quickly to stare at the board that his own forceful backwash, an upwelling of water from his last heaving strokes, knocked him backward. Then the numbers flashed: Phelps 1 minute 54.27 seconds, ahead of Lochte by .63 of a second.
It was so in doubt that Phelps’s main sensation upon realizing he had become the first man in history to win three consecutive gold medals in the same swimming event wasn’t triumph. It was a brew of reprieve, nostalgia, unreality, and completeness.
“Obviously, it’s a relief to win an individual gold medal,” he said. “It’s something pretty cool and special to three-peat.”
But while it was a first, it was also a last, the final time he would ever swim the 200 IM competitively.
“Over the last couple of days, it hasn’t really gone through my head,” he said. “It will probably kick into my head more and more. We’re just kind of checking everything off.”
He has fought half-heartedness for four years. After his historical feat of eight gold medals in a single Olympics, he entertained serious doubts about swimming in a fourth Olympics, and there were weeks when Bowman couldn’t get him to answer the phone, much less commit.
“When we got here, I said, ‘Wow, we’re here.’ There were a lot of times I wasn’t sure we’d be here,” Bowman said.
Even once he decided to swim in London, there was the question of what sort of goal to set, what do you reach for when you’ve already done everything in the sport worth doing?
He arrived here flat, unable to make his body fire, was badly beaten by Lochte in the 400 IM and failed to medal. But the key to Phelps’s phlegmatic personality is that he likes to be baited. His program of seven events might have been overreaching, but it also gave him the stimulus he needed to get his body going.
One of the things we’ve learned about Phelps in London is just how strong he is in both body and mind, beneath the lanky, lazy-bones pose. Lochte flipped 850-pound tires in his effort to surpass Phelps as the No.1 swimmer in the world. But he couldn’t do it, securing only a single individual gold after promising this would be his time.
“It just takes a real toll on your body,” Lochte said.
Which was proof that Phelps’s most notable historical feats include not just what he did in a single Olympics, but his defense of himself from one Olympics to another to another: swimming seven and eight events at a time and doing it under continual pressure, holding off the scores of hungrier and more eager chasers. There was a gleam in his tired, filmy eyes when he was asked how it’s possible that after seeming so beleaguered in the London Games, his last two swims have been his strongest.
“Maybe I’m warming up,” he said, smiling.
For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
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