Valedictory Phelps still on crest of the wave
LONDON 2012:MICHAEL PHELPS may be retreating towards the Olympic afterlife but he is slowly reshaping the events in this East London swimming pool in his own likeness. The Baltimore man was in valedictory mode last night as he swam against Ryan Lochte, his team-mate and fiercest rival, for the very last time last night.
Phelps duly won gold in that 200 Individual Medley to become the first man to win the gold in the event for three Olympics in succession. Those three gold medals serve to illustrate the time span of his reign. The swimmer’s life can be notoriously brief but an entire generation has come and gone since Phelps started breaking records.
The bashful grin was back last night but Phelps is so much more comfortable in is own skin now than he was back when he started shredding dusty record books and had the sports physicians studying his anatomy as if he was a freak of nature. It’s a funny thing: Phelps has grown up in public and it is only now that he is stepping out of the limelight that his personality is shining true.
Phelps may not be plundering quite as many medals at these Olympics but he has emerged as a wonderful ambassador for his sport. And even as he gave thanks for his 16th gold medal, he paused to consider the strangeness of knowing that he won’t be back here again.
“You go into every call room and I am saying ‘oh, it’s my last this. This was my last semi-final ever. This is my last call up ever’. So we are just chalking up the last of certain things and hopefully I can be as happy on Friday night.”
This evening will be another farewell for Phelps when he swims his last ever individual final, the men’s 100 butterfly, in which he still holds Olympic and World records. South African Chad le Clos, his idol turned challenger, would appear to be the man most likely to spoil a perfect encore.
There is a sense that Phelps is warming to the challenge. He was loose-limbed and assured in his two appearances here, unlike the slightly addled and disconsolate figure of Lochte, who has found the last few nights in the swimming pool unrelenting in their pressure.
Lochte opened his programme last night hoping to tap into his golden trough in the 200 metre backstroke but faded over the last 50 to finish third; his team-mate Tyler Clary taking the gold. Then he had 10 minutes to warm-down in the diving pool before returning for this weighted showdown with Phelps.
“I said to Ryan in the ready room that this is our last 200 together. We were just laughing about it. Ryan has been one of the toughest competitors that I have come up against.”
But yet again, Lochte swam a slightly inhibited race, as if burdened by the expectation and the obligation to actually step out of Phelps’s shadow. He had already proven his pedigree in Shanghai last August when he established the unbeaten 1:54.00 world record time.
But going into the last 25 metres of this race, Phelps rubbished the notion that he is in decline by closing in on it. Only then, over the closing stretch, did the accumulated toil of all those thousands of hours in the swimming pool begin to take their toll. Phelps touched first, just 0.04 of a second outside his own Olympic record and .27 outside Lochte’s world standard time.
Not too bad for an old man. Lochte managed a subdued smile on the podium but already the inquest into why he hasn’t fully sparked in London has begun. But the evening, like so many others in recent Olympic history, were defined by Michael Phelps. The goofy smile returned when asked if he was beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“I actually don’t know. Maybe warming up. Probably not! I think we all know that is probably not true”
No. The Baltimore phenomenon has one last race tonight and then finishes up on Saturday night’s extravaganza, the men’s 100 metre medley relay final. After that, the swimming pool is going to feel bigger and emptier.