This is why you *never* talk trash to Michael Phelps
Bulletin-board material is an overhyped cliche. It's a crutch used by unimaginative coaches looking for material to hype athletes that are going to give the same effort no matter what their opponent has been yapping about.
Michael Phelps isn't like other athletes though. He's the greatest Olympian in history, on the short list for greatest athletes ever and, with every passing race, becomes more like his idol, Michael Jordan. For the best of the best, any slight is fuel for dominance (Jordan was famous for this) and entering Tuesday night's 200 fly, Phelps had a full tank.
The same way we all knew MJ's shot was going down against Utah in the NBA Finals 18 years ago and the same way Tiger Woods' putt on the 18th hole of Torrey Pines in 2008 was totally hitting the center of the cup, there was no doubt Phelps was going to beat Chad Le Clos and the rest of the field in Tuesday night's 200m butterfly at the Olympics. The best don't lose when the stakes are the highest and if there's something to nudge them toward that destination, all the better.
The mere thought of avenging his loss to Le Clos in 2012's Olympic final would have likely been enough to get Phelps back on the top of the 200 butterfly podium – a place he spent 12 years, right until that still-shocking loss in London. But then Le Clos' went on a one-way war of the words, punctuated by his antics on Monday in which he was preening in front of Phelps, shadowboxing and dancing around, clearly thinking he was getting in Phelps head, completely unaware he was throwing the last remnants of dirt on his own grave.
You don't get inside Michael Phelps' head. He's a man who, after a brief mental detour in the leadup and aftermath of the London Games, is singularly focused on one thing – touching the wall first and beating you.
Swimmers spend hours a day in the pool, alone with their thoughts. There's no one to talk to, nothing to listen to, just you and the endless sound of your arms and legs splashing up water. It's like being in jail. The situation forces you to come up with thoughts to preserve your sanity.
So, when Michael Phelps spent the last two years diving in the pool at 4:45 a.m. and swimming mile after mile, lap after lap, set after set, the last thing an opponent should want is to give Phelps a reason to push it just a little harder – to put his head down and hit the wall with a little more lactic acid boiling in his muscles. It's why Phelps' performance in London was (relatively) unsuccessful after the magic of Beijing. What kind of goals keep you going after you've ascended to the summit of your sport?
The London missteps, the retirement, the DUI, the suspension and the fiancee and baby helped Phelps get his life in order. He didn't need more motivation in the pool this time, but you take it when it's delivered to your doorstep.
Enter Chad Le Clos.
When Phelps returned to the pool, the swimmer who had been cocky, yet still reverential, in talking about defeating his idol, turned defensive. Perhaps Phelps goaded him into it. After a minor meet early in his comeback, Phelps made the truthful comment that the state of butterfly hadn't been great in his absence. He said it with a little smirk on his face, like a 12-year-old who knows he's about to get a rise out of his little brother.
It worked. Le Clos became fixated on the comment and set out to prove Phelps wrong, which he did at the 2015 world championships. In a meet Phelps was suspended for, Le Clos won the 100 butterfly with one of the fastest times in history – a time Phelps hadn't touched in six years and one that crushed Phelps' gold-medal winning time from London.
Le Clos could barely contain his glee.
“[Phelps] has been talking a lot of smack in the media about how slow the butterfly is, so I just can’t wait until I race him. I just did a time that he hasn’t done in four years, so he can keep quiet now.”
Hours later, in a race halfway across the world, Phelps went out and swam a faster time – boom, just like that. It was a development Le Clos and his team considered illegitimate because Phelps didn't have to deal with “Chad Le Clos [coming] back at you the last 50 meters.” Yes, he spoke in the third person to describe it. That was the first sign Le Clos was buying into his self-created hype.
But Le Clos' controversial father, Bert, put it more succinctly.
“However fast Michael goes, we go faster. I don't care about his times, because I know my son is going to beat him.”
Phelps took the high road, both in the leadup to the Games and after Monday night's shenanigans that launched a thousands memes.
“There are a lot of things I could say, but I won't.” Phelps told Michele Tafoya of Le Clos' attempted bush-league psych-out stuff.
He didn't need to. The touchpad and podium don't lie.
Almost exactly one year ago, when Le Clos had the best 100 fly time for those precious few hours, he said that this Tuesday night would be like Ali-Frazier. He was wrong though. When Ali and Frazier fought, it was close.
Consider it a lesson learned. You come at the king, you best not miss.