President Barack Obama called to say congrats again Wednesday, really just wanting to be sure Michael Phelps had seen his tweet to that effect.
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Phelps’ Twitter feed was, in fact, a little crowded late Tuesday with everybody from Lindsay Lohan’s ex-girlfriend, to Lil Wayne, to The POTUS and Donte Stallworth congratulating him on becoming The GOAT —greatest of all time — after he added medals No. 18 and 19 to his already gigantic collection.
After he anchored the US 4×200-meter relay team’s gold-medal effort Tuesday — and reached magic No. 19 — Phelps soaked in the scoreboard and reveled like he rarely does.
He skipped his usual warm-down. He ignored his strict bedtime, barely sleeping if he’s being completely honest.
In the ready room Wednesday, instead of being his usual focused headphone-wearing self, he was screaming for Nathan Adrian as he nipped Australia’s James by .01 seconds in the 100-meter freestyle — the first win by an American in the event since 1984. Phelps soaked in every amazing moment of being at and competing in his final Olympics, which is why it is crazy to think of how close he was to not coming.
“I’d say we were pretty close to there at a couple of points,” said Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman.
Close enough that when Phelps and Bowman were finally in London, with events to swim, not Subway sandwiches to sell, Bowman said to himself, “God, we’re here,” a sigh of relief more than a declaration.
The thing about achievement is it usually corresponds to an ending. A season ends, and a champion is crowned. A career ends, and player is honored. A swimmer wins eight gold medals in a single Olympics, as Phelps did in 2008 in Beijing, and he retires. Phelps’ feat was so inspiring, so arduous, so mentally taxing and finally so perfect that everybody expected him to walk away.
What drew him back, aside from sheer force of will and persistence by Bowman, was knowing 19 and what that really meant.
“I know, and trust me, any number of people have told him how special it could be if he kept going,” Bowman said Wednesday. “And I think he always knew. It is just hard for him to really get into it.”
And now the question becomes: How will he finish?
He has a final, epic showdown with fellow American and hopeful foil Ryan Lochte in the 200-meter individual medley and a couple of butterfly swims and a relay. That is all that remains of years and years of training, of crazy hours, of experiences delayed, and he’s getting calls from the president and odes to his greatness and what has to be a siren call of rest.
How do you possibly focus that guy?
“I yell at him about his breaststroke in the IM tonight," Bowman said, "and he gets mad at me and goes home to pout.”
Bowman: “Can you please get your breaststroke together so we can do the time you want to do (in Thursday’s final)?”
Phelps: “Anything else I can do wrong?”
Bowman” “Yes, I’ve got a whole list of things, but right now just work on breaststroke.”
There is a “what if” in that sentence — an unspoken, “What if Phelps had trained as hard for four years” every time they talk about shooting for a time or goals. He is not the swimmer he was four years ago. This is disappointing obviously. This is also good.
He’s a better teammate this time around, his excitement for Adrian palatable as Phelps talked about him. Of course, some of this was because Adrian’s victory came against Magnussen — somewhat infamously of “WMD” and “brace yourselves” fame.
He told the world to “brace yourselves” after qualifying in Australia’s Olympic trials, and he was a proud and vocal member of their self-named “Weapons of Mass Destruction” relay team.
“Having such a successful young career, I just feel pretty much bulletproof coming into this Olympics,” Magnussen said later. “It’s very humbling. As my coach said earlier this week, it’s a pretty tough time to realize you are human . . . I have a lot more respect for guys like Michael Phelps, who can come to the Olympics and back up under that pressure.”
It is the ironic part of this Olympics, an event that has seen Phelps fail to medal in the 400 IM and settle for silver in the 200 butterfly and 4×100 relay. All of this has actually forced all of us to recognize just how amazing what he has accomplished really is. This has not diminished him; rather, the opposite.
“One of the things I have found strangely comforting this week is that I think I would have had a really hard time if he had come in here and would have lit up every swim and won every gold medal off of what he did these past four years because that would take away from what he did before,” Bowman said. “You know what I mean? You have these values that you think are important, that you are teaching every day, so you know it’s been pretty fair.”
As heartbreaking as Tuesday’s 200 butterfly loss was, Phelps admitted it was probably a result of not cleaning up his finishes. And now it is all winding down, starting with Thursday’s epic final showdown with Lochte. Everybody expects Lochte to win, and he might.
Do not count out Phelps.
Ever since he did not medal in the 400 IM, he has been swimming mad, and that Phelps is always dangerous. It is why he had such a good time in the relay and why, right until the finish, he crushed in his 200 fly. It is why he is impossible to count out.
“We love racing against each other,” Phelps said. “Neither one of us likes to lose. I say we bring out the best in one another.”
What is crazy is to think how all of this almost did not happen, how close Phelps was to walking away with 16, how close Wednesday was to being a day when the president did not call and celebs did not tweet and Phelps did not swim.