With Prince William and King James, Kobe and Kate in attendance, Michael Phelps dove in for his final individual race of any kind and absolutely crushed that 100 fly, winning gold easily despite being in seventh at the turn.
Of course he did. What did we expect? This is the greatest swimmer in the history of the world and this is what he does, win races, at least for another day, until he swims his final 100 fly in a relay and walks away from a sport he absolutely dominated forever.
As Phelps inches closer to his final Olympic race, though, we somewhat idiotically keep trying to have him put himself in proper perspective — like this is even possible. We asked him again after his 100 butterfly victory to describe his place in history, his emotions and what his amazing career means.
He again stumbled for words, and understandably so.
Perspective requires distance, especially with regards to self. This is why Russian swimmer Evgeny Korotyshkin — in his broken English — probably was best at summarizing what swimming in the time of Phelps is like.
“Twelve years, 12 years,” he said after winning silver, “and always…”
You have to understand, Korotyshkin’s entire competitive swimming career has overlapped with Phelps — in years and events. He has been swimming this 100 fly just like Phelps in Athens and Beijing and London, and never once before Friday had the Russian been anywhere close to being on a podium with him. He had never even reached a final.
He barely reached Friday’s final, qualifying eighth, which gave him Lane 8, an afterthought at Phelps’ party status.
The beauty of the Olympics is how it plums the essence of sport, this question of how to proceed when defeat seems inevitable?
Korotyshkin’s answer Friday was because he could not not try. And swimming in the time of Phelps, not giving up is a victory.
“As you know, Michael, he’s for all swimmers, he is like idol and it’s hard to compete with him,” Korotyshkin said. “So I am really happy I am here and I was able to catch a medal. I didn’t expect to medal. That was my dream, a bronze medal. And I got silver. It is an amazing feeling.”
The legacy of Phelps is not simply the medals, of which he now has 21, 17 of them gold. His legacy is also told in Korotyshkins, impressive swimmers from around this world who came up against Phelps’ will and lost again and again and again.
This also is the beauty of the Olympics because, in that moment when Korotyshkin touched the wall at the same time as South Africa’s Chad Le Clos to grab silver, he won.
His silver felt like Phelps’ gold. First or 21st, staying a course and being rewarded brings joy, and this finish had meaning for each of them.
For le Clos, it was to be racing with his idol Phelps, his reason to start swimming. For Korotyshkin, it was justification for not giving up on his dream.
And for Phelps, it was to be able to walk away from a sport that he has forever changed in a way befitting of his ability and his legacy. He wanted to leave on an individual gold. He is not a fade-away kind of guy, and he’d forever regret it if his last individual event had been silver.
“I don’t even want to complain about going slower or having a bad turn or finish. I’m not even going to say any of that. I’m just glad the last one was a win,” Phelps said. “That’s all I really wanted. … I was able to finish with two individual golds; to be able to finish that way, I can’t really finish any better.”
Athletes always say they are competing against themselves more than anybody. We roll our eyes, but it is true. You are always fighting yourself, your urge to give up, your doubt, your fatigue, whether you have just won eight golds or a big bag of nothing.
After Beijing, both Phelps and Korotyshkin walked away.
“I was, you can say, swimming in my country and I tried to compete hard and I couldn’t make my goal,” Korotyshkin said. “Always, I missed some important things.”
Why he returned was because his parents told him he’d regret walking away like this. He had to try. So how do you proceed when defeat is seemingly inevitable? You just do. This is how he ended up in Italy, his entire life upended.
This got him to London where, if he’s being honest, he was on nobody’s radar to medal. But there he was with Phelps on the podium, the guy who forever had set the bar that he had failed to clear. And for him to be up there one time with Phelps is what sport is about, about failing and failing and failing and never giving up.
That was the victory. It was won before the race.
That he finished second, well, that was just a storybook ending to sweeten things.
“Tonight it’s just a party,” Korotyshkin said, “but it was worth it either way.”
He lost to Phelps, and there is victory in that moment. And perspective on what Phelps has meant to swimming. “Twelve years, 12 years and always . . . ” perfectly summarizes what he has been.