You start with the race. You have to start with the race.
All of the things Michael Phelps has become in his Olympic career — legendary, The GOAT, an owner of 18 gold and 22 medals in all — all of it began exactly like this, with his diving into a pool for a swim.
He was second when he hit the water Saturday for his butterfly leg in the 4×100 medley relay, his last competitive race. He touched the wall 50.73 seconds later in first, leaving Nathan Adrian to wrap up the gold medal for the Americans and Phelps so he could go out as he always was: a winner.
“Just watching Michael swim is beautiful,” 17-year-old American Missy Franklin said perfectly. “You can just see he’s made to do it.”
The danger now, as Phelps walks away from a sport that he dominated and forever changed, is not that we will downplay what he was, but rather we will make it too big. When we turn Phelps into a superhero or a freak of nature, we actually demean what made him great. There is no secret — or rather, it is one we all know and is available to all in whatever your endeavor may be.
He dared to dream bigger. And he relentlessly chased his dream with hard work and dedication.
In this Olympics, with so many amazing and inspirational sights to see — the first Saudi females competing, double amputee Oscar Pistorius running on his blade legs, Gabby Douglas becoming the first African-American to win all-around gymnastics gold — we have to be careful that we do not forget the inspirational power of plain dogged determination applied daily, until it produces the greatest Olympian of all time.
“It’s kind of weird looking at this and seeing ‘The greatest Olympian of all time,’” Phelps said as he cradled a trophy declaring just that late Saturday. “When I was in the warm-down pool, I said to (coach) Bob (Bowman), ‘I’ve looked up to Michael Jordan my whole life, because he has done something that nobody else has ever done. He is the greatest basketball player ever to play the game.’ I said, ‘You know what, I have been able to become the best swimmer of all time.’ We got here together. I thanked him.
“It was funny, when I got out of the pool, he was like, ‘That’s not fair.’ I said, ‘What’s not fair about it?’ He goes, ‘You were in the pool.’ My tears can hide behind my goggles. Yours are streaming down your face.”
Phelps is a reminder that if your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough. His were that big, written down in a journal in this last year as a reminder.
Do something nobody else had.
Elevate the sport of swimming.
Be the first Michael Phelps.
“There is not much more he can do,” Bowman said. “I guess, if he finds after a couple of years he is searching for something and thinks he can find it in swimming, he could look at it. But I don’t think he will. I think he is ready to explore other things. He has done all he can do here. We had a great end to a great run.”
What he did for swimming is hard to define — he both elevated and dwarfed his sport. Four years ago in Beijing, the whole USA swimming contingent would get out of the pool, male or female, win or lose, world record or gold medal or both, and it did not matter. All we talked about was him and his Olympics, deservedly so as he did what nobody else had, winning eight gold medals. He emerged as a legend, yet also apart from his team. He looked almost robotic in his pursuit, and, afterward, while we embraced his achievement, there was always this feeling that we did not know him.
Phelps was different this time around in London. For starters, he lost races. He started off the meet horribly, failing to medal in the 400-meter individual medley. There were questions the next day, actual, real questions by journalists not named me, about whether the greatest swimmer of all time deserved a spot on the 4×200 freestyle relay. He was touched out in the 200 butterfly and had to settle for silver. And it was in these moments we were able to see the real Phelps, really see him. He smiled more. He soaked in the moment. And he rose to the occasion at the end.
There are two ways athletes respond when they get knocked to their knees. Some stay down. Others came up swinging. Phelps was the latter. In a weird quirk of Olympic swimming, he seemed to get better as the meet went on — like his resolve stiffened and he told himself he was not going out like this.
He did not. He ended the meet and his career with four more gold medals.
“I did it,” Phelps said when asked what he’d write in his journal about Saturday. “I’ve been able to put my mind to the goals that I have wanted to achieve. Bob and I have been able to somehow manage to do every single thing. If you can say that about your career, there is no need to move forward. It’s time for other things.”
“What will you miss about Phelps?” was posed to almost everybody Saturday, swimmers and coaches all giving varying takes on the same answer. Mostly, they talked about his talent, his ability, the medals, the fun of swimming in his era. What those of us who love swimming (and not simply every four years) will miss is a guy who made the sport matter, made it bigger and put it on par with track and gymnastics.
The best answer, though, came from Bowman the night before because he hit on what made Phelps great. It was not some secret. It was Phelps’ ability to turn all of that practice, all of those years of dedication into amazing when he dived into the pool.
“What I’m going to miss the most is seeing him rise to the occasion like he did (Thursday),” Bowman said. “Really when he needed to do something spectacular, he did. That’s what I’ll miss most.”
You start with the race. You have to start with the race.
It was in these moments, races just like Saturday’s, we were reminded of the power of the dream and the rewards of chasing it doggedly as Phelps did.