We pause in the mad rush to the start of football season, between the breathless drama of who’s practicing with the backups at LSU and measurements of Zach Mettenberger’s launch angle on his passes, to linger by the pool one last time — and pay homage to the master of it.
The Greeks didn’t have swimming in their ancient games, but if there had been a Michael Phelps all those centuries ago, they probably would have rowed some combatants a proper distance out into the Aegean Sea and let swim for shore. And second place.
Hyperbole goes hand in glove these days with every athlete who comes along and wins anything. The greatest this. The best ever that. No one will ever top the other.
Almost every time, it isn’t true. This time, it might be. It almost certainly will be.
To call Michael Phelps a swimmer would be to refer to Moby Dick as a fish. Sunday night in London, he thundered through the third leg of the men’s 4x100 individual medley — a race the U.S. has never lost in an Olympics in which Americans competed — and into Olympic immortality.
His total medal count is 22, which is four more than the 18 held by the previous record holder, former Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina. The gold medal was his 18th, twice as many as anyone else has won, a Hall of Fame list that includes Latynina, Mark Spitz, Carl Lewis and Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi. It’s one more gold medal than the entire nation of Argentina, a nation that gave us Maradona and Manu Ginobli and Gabriela Sabatini (a gold-medal effort right there), has won in its history.
Of course, mere medal counts don’t just tell the tale. Detractors will say swimmers have more chances to win more medals at more incrementally different length races and styles, and they’re right. And it is certainly a worthwhile argument to say that track and field superstars like Lewis and Jesse Owens — who both combined feats of sprinting and long jumping no man wants to attempt anymore — were greater pure Olympians or pure athletes.
But no one has been this dominant to this degree in the Olympics as Phelps. No man ever won the same swimming event in three straight Olympics before, and Phelps leaves London having done it twice: in the 200 individual medley and 100 butterfly.
Phelps isn’t perfect. He’s a flawed human like the rest of us, as evidenced by that embarrassing photo of him with a marijuana pipe after attending a South Carolina football game three years ago.
But that doesn’t detract from the fact that he is the best swimmer who ever lived.
Phelps says he is done, though some like NBC’s Rowdy Gaines say he will be in Rio in 2016. Some reports peg Phelps’ worth at $45 million, so he doesn’t have to lift a finger again, in or out of the pool, if he doesn’t want to. He will be 31 then, and maybe up for one more challenge. Perhaps not.
If he comes back in four years, like some swimming comet, he’ll probably add to his miraculous medal count. If not, we can say we were lucky enough to witness the days and nights he streaked across the pool, and left a legacy no Olympian, much less swimmer, may ever touch.