With his surprisingly easy win in the 200 IM on Thursday night, Michael Phelps won his fourth gold medal in four Olympic swims, setting up the possibility that the 31-year-old could unbelievably go six-for-six in Rio, a feat that wouldn't match his eight-for-eight meet in Beijing but, given the circumstances, would be almost as impressive.
Phelps has two races left: the 100 fly on Friday and the 4×100 medley on Saturday. That's about 1 minute and 40 seconds of swimming that'll be the difference between a phenomenal Olympic meet and the second-greatest Olympic swim meet ever. (If it happens it won't beat Beijing, but it'd hae to go ahead of Mark Spitz's seven golds given Phelps' age, comeback and the increased level of competition.)
So, can he do it?
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Let's take the last part first. The only way the U.S. will lose Saturday's 4×100 medley relay is if there's a false start. It's not out of the question, it happened to Team USA at the 2007 world championships. But that's going to be a gold. Mark it five, dude.
Next, let's just marvel at the fact getting six golds is even a discussion. A rejuvenated and refocused Phelps was expected to have a tremendous Rio Olympics, even at an age at which no man had ever won a gold medal. (A 30-year-old won gold in 1920.) But to still be perfect two-thirds of the way through his program is something that was never even considered.
Why? Phelps' first race, in the 4x100m freestyle relay, was going to be a loss. It wasn't a question. Since 2000, the U.S. hadn't won gold in the event except for that wild 2008 race in which Jason Lezak came back from a body-length down to the French world-record holder to save Phelps' quest for perfection. Lezak's is still the fastest relay split in history by about seven-tenths of a second. If that's what it took to win one, what chance did they have of a second miracle?
The idea on Sunday night was to win silver and build from there. Silver would be the American's gold. The Australians and French were heavy favorites, not just among swimming experts but amongst those who know even more – British bookies, who had the U.S. as the third favorites to win, giving them about a 15% chance according to the implied numbers. Yet the U.S. defied the odds and didn't even need a blazing comeback leg to do it. They led most of the race, easily touched in first and Phelps started his 2016 with a gold medal.
Then came the 200 fly. It was thought to be a toss-up between Phelps and Chad Le Clos, the man who broke the American's stranglehold on the event at the 2012 Olympics. But once again, the competitor(s) who was supposed to challenge Phelps blinked. After talking trash for a year and laughably trying to get in Phelps' head before their semifinal race, Le Clos was destroyed by Phelps and didn't even medal. However, there was still a very-close race at the finish anyway and Phelps needed one of his patented quick finishes to defeat Japan's Masato Sakai by 0.04 seconds.
One-third of the way there. But it was odd; six still felt like an impossibility, even with what figured to be his hardest race out of the way. Phelps is 31 years old. He'd have to swim a brutal back-to-back after the 200 IM final. His final individual race is one of those sprints that can be won by anybody from lanes two to seven. And he's 31 years old. Did I mention that? Surely he'd trip up somewhere.
The doubt, and the possibility of six, seemed to fuel Phelps. After an easy win in the 4×200 freestyle relay, it was time for Thursday's 200 IM in what was billed as a battle between Phelps and Ryan Lochte. But just like with Le Clos, Lochte finished out of the medals and Phelps, unlike in that fly race, crushed the field in an easy win. Four up, four down.
No, the tricky part about Thursday wouldn't be the 200 IM, but the 100 fly semifinals that came right after. Having a turnaround of about 34 minutes is tough for any athlete, let alone one who's – well, you know how old he is. But it's especially tough when you're in the first heat of a sprint race and NBC cameras have already caught you struggling to get out of the water following your first race. When Phelps had to make the same turn-around at the U.S. trials, he qualified sixth for the eight-man final with a time that wouldn't hold up against the faster Olympic competition. This was no guarantee.
Phelps made it look easy though. He touched at the 50 in last place, surely making millions of hearts beat faster around the country, but that's his m.o. in the 100; start slow, crush the turn and use a powerful back-half to get the win. The win, in this case, was merely making the final, which he did courtesy a second-place finish in his heat.
And then there was one. (Again, the 4×100 medley is a lock.)
Friday, 9:12 p.m. ET. It's been the “circle the date” moment of the swimming program ever since Phelps announced his comeback. Just like in the 200 IM, he'll be trying to win his fourth straight gold in the event, something that had never been done until Thursday night. There's a big difference between the two races, however. The 100 fly is always won by a razor-thin margin.
Phelps won his first gold in Athens with a ridiculous final stroke that got him in 0.04 ahead of American teammate Ian Crocker. In Beijing, Phelps took a far-more ridiculous final stroke to beat Milorad Cavis by 0.01 – the closest finish in Olympic swimming history. Then, in London, Phelps had a veritable blowout, winning by 0.23 over Le Clos and a Russian swimmer you'll be shocked to learn didn't make it back. It's a crapshoot.
Can Phelps do it? Of course he can do it. This is the race he's had no business winning twice and has done it anyway. This is the race he needs in Rio. If he loses it, nobody will much remember down the line. If he wins, then the legend somehow grows even more. And, against all reason, I think he's going to do it.
As has been the case in every race for the past 12 years, Phelps will be the hunted. Le Clos wants revenge. Hungarian Laszlo Cseh, who's made five podiums in Olympic competition and has looked up to see Phelps on top every single time, has been dreaming about this moment for more than a decade. And top seed Joseph Schooling, just 21 and from the University of Texas, who as a youngster took one of those cute pictures with Phelps when the U.S. was on a training trip in Singapore (Schooling trains in the States but swims for his home nation), is too young to know any better.
So the question isn't whether he can, it's if he will. Logic says no. He's competed in too many meters at too old an age and has so many competitors who can push him down the final standings that one is bound to put together the perfect race. Michael Phelps has been living dangerously in this race for over a decade. It has to catch up with him.
But the greatest ignore logic and probability. This is Michael Phelps' MJ moment. He'll win the 100 fly and then take his victory lap on Saturday night, six more golds to his name, another brilliant Olympic performance for the record books and a fitting swan song for one of the greatest athletes sports has ever seen.
Joseph Schooling qualified with the top time for 100m butterfly final, will race vs Phelps, who he met as a child pic.twitter.com/gfivuaE00N