Phelps’ toughest competition is himself

I am just going to say that thing you are not supposed to say in an Olympic year: Not everybody has a chance. Hardly anybody does actually.

We like to pretend on any given day anybody can beat anybody. We preach if an athlete just trains hard enough for long enough, he can become the best in the world.

This is not true. When certain elite athletes are on, they are unbeatable even by other really dedicated, really good athletes.

Michael Phelps is one of those elite athletes. And if he had been dedicated about his training after his record-shattering, eight-gold-medal performance in 2008 in Beijing, the world would not stand a chance in 2012 in London.

Phelps was not, and now they do.

As a result, how he will finish what undoubtedly has been one of the most prolific careers in Olympic history is unknown. His legacy feels very much in doubt, and many swimming types believe Ryan Lochte has a chance to finally surpass him.

“The last three years of my training has not gone too well, my performances have not been too great,” Phelps said Sunday at the USOC media summit in Dallas. “I am doing everything I can. Hopefully, I did not get too far behind to make up some of the ground Ryan has picked up on me.”

Coming immediately off a meet in Charlotte where he had swum alright, just not as Phelps circa Beijing, his peformance further fed this growing idea that Phelps is cruising for a huge letdown in London and that his longtime rival is going to beat him like he has been beating him since 2008.

And while Lochte has been saying “this is my time,” Phelps and his coach revealed exactly what they think of this Sunday when asked if Lochte’s comments motivated him.

“Honestly, I don’t think it does anything for Michael because his main competition is himself,” his coach Bob Bowman said.

What Bowman was saying is: If Phelps is even close to himself, Lochte does not stand a chance.

This is arrogant, and this also rings true.

It also helps explain what happened to Phelps after 2008. While every other swimmer in the world was hanging a picture of Phelps at their training pool for motivation, he had only himself.

And what do you do when your biggest competition is yourself?

And you are better than any swimmer ever?

Of course, your motivation hides. Some days you look for it. Others, you do not bother because you know better than anybody know how hard it is, how many hours and laps and meters go into winning. And how even then, it is centimeters that determine the winner of the 100-meter butterfly.

“After 2008, I just didn’t want to do it. I just probably didn’t want to put the work in,” Phelps said, pausing momentarily to take out the “probably” he knew in his heart to be disingenuous.

“I didn’t want to put the work in,” he continued. “I did not come to practice. It did not excite me. I was just going through the motions.”

So it was in 2009. And so it was in 2010.

Phelps began really training again in 2011, but even the greatest swimmer in the world cannot take off two-plus years and just go back to kicking butt, not when everybody else has been training. This is how he had his butt handed to him by Lochte at the World Championships in Shanghai that year.

“It wasn’t fun,” Phelps said. “Obviously, I put myself in that spot. I put myself in the spot to not swim the times I want. He was kind of just rolling over me. It wasn’t fun to be on that end.”

He always had been the one just slightly ahead, the pursued, the gold medalist, the faster one. He had been like “whatever” when this happened in 2010. It started to gnaw at him by 2011.

He says he can not pinpoint when this changed or exactly why. My guess is it was the closeness of the London Olympics. He had to know what people will say and how it will change how they think of him if he goes from winning eight gold medals to none.

I asked him if he regretted this time, if he looked back longingly wishing he could tell his 2009 self to get his ass back in the pool, or if he needed to step away.

“I probably needed to go through that myself,” he said. “I am kind of the person you can only tell so much. I have to experience things on my own.”

He laughed, admitting if he had known how hard it would be to get it back he might not have gone away. This is quite different than regret, though.

“I wouldn’t change anything I have done in my career,” he said. “It was all about me being able to find the passion again.”

Bowman tried to give it to him. Speedo and Subway undoubtedly did also. What finally motivated him was he was no longer his only competition.

And then, almost immediately, it was as it had been in 2008. He typed his goals, goals he has shared only with Bowman. He is not saying what they are or what he plans to swim and or how many golds he hopes to win in London only that “goals should never be easy. They should force you to be uncomfortable at times.”

“That’s how I have always been and that’s how I am going out,” Phelps said. “I know it is not going to be eight medals. If you guys want to compare me to that, it is your decision not mine.”

And if Phelps is anywhere near on, I am not so sure anybody else has a chance.