Michael Phelps told his teammates “thank you,” which seemed like a pretty strange thing for a man who had just become the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time to say to the fellow swimmers huddled around him after Tuesday’s 4×200 gold medal-winning freestyle relay.
“Thank you,” American swimmer Ricky Berens said in response because, well, “you’re welcome” seemed all wrong. “He can’t thank us. We’re thanking him.”
For 12 years and three Olympics, swimmers like Berens had the pleasure of swimming with and against, racing and training and winning — yes mostly winning — with one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time. Now, after Tuesday, all of them will be able to tell children and grandchildren that they were teammates of the greatest Olympian of all time.
Because while Phelps technically passed Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina on the Olympic medal scoreboard, 19-18, with that relay gold, the athlete he really tracked down and overtook was Carl Lewis, who had 10 Olympics medals.
Lewis was the great Olympian of my childhood, winning gold medals with speed and with jumping ability, with style and with consistency. I thought Lewis was the greatest athlete I had ever seen, not because of how many medals he won but because of how he dominated his sport.
And so Phelps could not pass Lewis merely by medal-topping him. This could not be simply a numbers game. Making this only about 19 is how too many are able to dismiss what Phelps has accomplished, with crazy talk about how swimming is not as physically demanding, thereby allowing more events and more medals.
The demands of swimming are merely different, not less. There is no “kind of” training in swimming. You are there every day for hours, following a little black line on the bottom of the pool. You come back in the afternoon not because you want to, but because excellence demands it. This wears on your joints and your body and your brain. It is like death by 10 meters, a never-ending push for more and faster. Most cannot do this, certainly not for as long or as hard as necessary to win 19 medals.
So there is no asterisk here because Phelps got his medals in swimming. There is also no more debate. He passed Carl not with 19 but rather with the sustained dominance required for that to be possible.
“The biggest thing I have always said is, ‘Anything is possible,’” a surprisingly circumspect Phelps said afterward. “I have put my mind to doing something nobody had done before. There was nothing that was going to stand in my way of being the first Michael Phelps. And this has been an amazing ride.”
The most amazing parts have only started happening in the past couple of days. It is obvious that Phelps is not himself, or at least not the superhuman he was in Beijing. It is training or age or the rest of the world catching up. Who knows? It is just obvious that it is not as easy as it once was.
The perfect example is the 200-meter butterfly he swam Tuesday. This is his signature event, my absolute favorite to watch him swim because of the way he makes something so challenging look so beautiful.
It was exactly that kind of race Tuesday night, right down to Phelps gliding in while South Africa’s Chad le Clos took an extra stroke. This time, unlike in 2008, when Phelps barely out-touched Serbian swimmer Milorad Cavic in the 100 butterfly to keep his quest for eight golds alive, Phelps was the one who came up short at the wall.
“I’m as shocked as you are,” Clos told reporters afterward to a chuckle.
He carried this awe into the press conference afterward. All of his words were tinged with, “Wow, I cannot believe I beat Michael Phelps. Can you?” This is actually a testament to Phelps, a reminder of how fast the rest of the world is and how hard it really is to get your hand on the wall first 15 times.
“It makes me appreciate it more,” Phelps coach Bob Bowman said. “I thought it used to be easy. Now, it’s like, ‘Come on, Michael, get a medal.’ I thought golds used to come easily. It underscores how difficult it is to win a medal of any color at this event, and it’s getting harder and harder, and anyone who gets any kind of medal should be highly celebrated.”
It was not the medal he wanted. He flung his cap in disgust. He forced the most pained smile on his face for the medal ceremony and took it off immediately afterward. But it was in this moment that we were reminded that none of this was guaranteed and how truly amazing it is to have a resume that reads: Bronze. Bronze. Gold. Gold. Gold. Gold. Gold. Gold. Gold. Gold. Gold. Gold. Gold. Gold. Gold. Gold. Silver. Silver. Gold.
That last gold, the one in the relay, will do little to quiet those who say swimming is easy. Phelps was swimming the anchor leg of the relay, and his teammates Ryan Lochte, Connor Dwyer and Berens had given him the gigantic lead he had playfully asked for beforehand. He was swimming in open water when he saw the wall about 20 meters away and broke into a smile.
“It is the first time I ever think I have done that in a race,” Phelps said. “I saw that we had won pretty much. I knew we had done it, and I don’t know … yeah, I’m kind of at a loss for words right now. Everything is kind of happening. Being able to do something that nobody has ever done before, and that is what I always said I wanted to do, and this has been a lot.”
It is a lot to become the greatest Olympian of all time. It is gracious to say thanks in that moment. And Berens had the only proper response, for his teammates and for all of us.
Thank you, Michael Phelps.
Thank you for taking us on this amazing ride of dominance with you.