Column: Phelps, history-maker, but history’s best?

Nineteen – say that again, nineteen – Olympic medals. All won by

one man unlike any other. It simply defies belief. Imagine the

space that much heavy metal takes up. Even more unimaginable is the

effort it took to get them.

No one could disagree with the bedsheet unfurled by fans in the

crowd that said: ”PHELPS GREATEST OLYMPIAN EVER.”

So thank you, Michael. Thanks for another milestone in human

history. The simple words ”Olympic record” didn’t quite do

justice to the achievement, which Phelps sealed and delivered in

London, but which really was a monument to a lifetime of dedication

to the goal of being the best one can be.

Sounds so simple. It’s anything but.

For the first time in all of the hundreds of races he has swum,

Phelps said he smiled to himself underwater in the last 20 meters

of the 4×200-meter freestyle relay on Tuesday night that got him

the medal – it was gold, yet another one – he needed to become the

first Olympian in history with 19 medals.

”It shows that hard work does pay off,” he said.

Trying to understand what it must feel like to be Phelps is

beyond us. But those words of wisdom – seemingly so obvious, but so

hard to actually execute – we could grasp.

Fifteen golds, two silvers and two bronze accumulated at three

Olympics and – who knows? – perhaps as many as three medals more to

come in London before the most successful swimmer ever gets on with

the rest of his life, seeing for himself that there is more to the

world than pools and hotel rooms.

”Four more years! Four more years!” shouted his supporters in

the Aquatics Centre.

Please, for his sake, no.

The best of his 27 years bathed in chlorine.

God knows how many thousands of miles in the pool, how many cold

morning swims growing up in Baltimore.

Monstrous.

Resting on the laurels of 2008 in Beijing, where he eclipsed

Mark Spitz’s record with eight golds at one games, and staying on

the golf course would have been so much easier than beating himself

back into shape for London.

Phelps tried that. Kind of liked it for a while, too, packing on

pounds and avoiding water.

But then he found the discipline and desire to mount one last

Olympic campaign. Not as immaculately prepared as in 2008, but

still good enough to get the three medals in London he needed to

break the Olympic record of 18 – nine golds, five silvers and four

bronzes – that Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina put together from

1956-64.

The first – the first silver of his career – came Sunday in the

4×100 freestyle relay, when the French got gold and payback for

2008, when the roles were reversed.

The second medal that drew Phelps level with Latynina was on

Tuesday night in the 200 butterfly. The great competitor was

furious that it was, quote-unquote, only a silver again.

Exactly an hour after tossing away his swim cap in disgust at

that loss to Chad le Clos of South Africa, Phelps returned composed

for the U.S. team’s relay victory that put him on an Olympic

pedestal alone.

The jaded will say he backed into Latynina’s record, that Phelps

winning one gold and two silvers so far in London is disappointing

by his standards.

But he still had to get to London to put himself in a position

to win them. That was a giant achievement when a life of lazy

luxury could have been the tempting alternative. One that 99.9

percent of us would have chosen.

And, once here, Phelps still had to beat swimmers who since

Beijing worked to get better to beat him. If anything, the

mortality he showed in London only put his pure gold Great Haul of

China into sharper perspective. It was truly epic. And epics can’t

come every time, even from Phelps. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be

epic.

”I thought the golds just used to come easy,” said Bob Bowman,

the coach who steered, yelled and shaped the hyperactive kid into a

world-beater.

”It underscores how difficult it is to win a medal of any color

at this event, and it’s getting harder and harder.”

So Phelps is a history-maker, has been since he was a teen. And

with the years, the history grew only bigger.

But history’s best athlete ever?

People will say so. They’ll point to the medals, the world

records, the memorable swims in Athens, Beijing and now London that

more often than not ended with the playing of the ”The

Star-Spangled Banner.”

But there have been so many fabulous Olympians that to single

out one, even one as unique as Phelps, suggests the others weren’t

so great in their own way.

Greatness isn’t measured in medals alone.

Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis and the indefatigable Paavo Nurmi, who

won the 1,500 meters, caught his breath and then lined up 55

minutes later to win the 5,000 all on one day in 1924.

They were all pretty great.

So, too, was George Eyser, the American gymnast who won three

golds, two silvers and one bronze at the 1904 Olympics with a

wooden left leg, which replaced the one amputated after he was run

over by a train.

And Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian Imperial guardsman who won the

1960 Rome marathon running barefoot.

Or Lis Hartel, the Danish rider who despite being paralyzed by

polio below the knees and having to be helped on and off her horse,

Jubilee, won silver in dressage in 1952 and again in 1956.

And on and on.

You get the picture.

There’s a whole human history born from the games.

Phelps is part of it, but not all of it.

But because he came back and completed the job in London that he

started in Athens, he is a bigger part of that history than

most.

”This has been an amazing ride,” he said.

For us all.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The

Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow

him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester