Even Michael Phelps was astonished at his own brilliance
Greatest Olympian ever last night brought gold medal tally to 21 in 200m butterfly
South Africa’s Chad le Clos looks left as Michael Phelps of the USA passes him in the final of the men’s 200m butterfly at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Photo: Pascal le Segretain/Getty Images
For once Michael Phelps was as blown away as his rivals, and the rest of us. “That,” he whispered, “was awesome”. The greatest Olympian of them all was paying homage to the sustained encore of noise that greeted his 200m butterfly victory, yet his words also sweetly summed up one of his most brilliant hours of his career.
Phelps’ legacy has long been gold coated, triple plated, signed, sealed and delivered. There appeared nothing more he could do to enhance it. And yet, here he was, at 31, adding two more gold medals to his ledger in double quick time.
“We got a lot of medals, it’s just insane,” he admitted, when he was reminded that his second victory on Tuesday night, in the 4x200m relay, meant he had now accumulated 21 golds, two silvers and two bronzes over five Olympics – seven more than the Soviet gymnast, Larisa Latyina, who is next on the list with 18. “I came into the pool tonight on a mission, and it was mission accomplished.”
That military terminology appeared apt given the punchy build-up to the 200m butterfly final. On Monday Chad Le Clos, the boisterous South African who had broken Phelps’ hold over the 200m butterfly in the London 2012 final, tried to rile him by shadow boxing in front of him before Monday’s semi-finals. It was the latest in a long line of micro aggressions since Phelps’ return from retirement in April 2014. The American’s response, a death stare which gave every indication of wanting to shatter his opponent’s body into a billion pieces, became the subject of thousands of internet memes.
Before the final there was no such drama in the call room. But when Phelps entered the arena it was clear he meant business: his towel flung over his shoulder like a prize fighter and his face showing a focus that was as single-minded as it was scary.
All athletes try to find “the zone” when they compete, that mystical state where everything flows like water and the mind develops tunnel vision. For Phelps, however, this is more like a war zone. His geeky, easy going demeanour was replaced by thunder. The blood-red crop circles on his back – the effects of the controversial Chinese healing technique of ‘cupping’ – only added to the overall effect.
As the pair lined up on the blocks – Phelps in lane five, Le Clos in six – they positioned themselves so their backs were next to each other, refusing to acknowledge each others’ presence. Le Clos was quickest on the draw, making the faster start, but shortly after the first turn Phelps was already ahead with the South African in second. By 100m the distance had stretched to a body length, his enormous upper body strength and those size 14 feet, creating waves of energy his opponents couldn’t counter.
With 50m his lead had been further extended, but it was not yet decisive. But it became clear that Clos had burnt himself out, and while Phelps was tying up he had just enough to hold off the fastest finishing Japanese swimmer Masata Sakai winning in 1:53.36, 0.04 sec ahead of Sakai with the Hungarian Tamas Kenderesi in third and Le Clos fourth.
“There wasn’t a shot in hell I was losing that tonight,” insisted Phelps. “I didn’t know I only won by 0.04 until the awards’ ceremony - but just seeing the number one next to my name just one more time in the 200m fly, I couldn’t have scripted it any better.”
Phelps’ emotion was understandable for the 200m butterfly is his signature event: the one he cherishes the most and has owned the longest. Between 2001 and 2012 he put together one of the great runs in sports history, staying unbeaten for 11 years in international competition. For good measure, he also broke the world record eight times. “On the podium, I was going through the last 16 years,” he explained. “That event was my bread and butter. And this was the last time I will ever swim it. Having that come to an end is crazy to think about.”
There were even few warmish words for the vanquished Le Clos. “I don’t want him to win and I’m sure he doesn’t want me to win,” admitted Phelps. “But he is someone who is a good racer, he is not afraid to put it on the line. The kid has talent. And last 10m oh my gosh, I thought I was standing still. It’s good for the sport to have a competitor like that.”
That 200m butterfly victory made Phelps the oldest male swimmer to win an individual Olympic gold medal, and the first man to win a medal in the same individual event in four successive Games. Yet 70 minutes later he was back anchoring the men’s 4x200m relay, steering the American team home in 7:00.66, nearly three seconds clear Great Britain in second place.
That victory appeared relatively smooth, with Phelps taking over on the final leg with a huge lead. But as his team-mate Conor Dwyer revealed afterwards there had been a brief spasm of panic: “I finished my leg and he tapped me on the shoulder and I heard him say, ‘I don’t have a cap’,” he explained. “So I handed him mine. We have different sponsors so he had to reverse it but he didn’t affect him. After all, I’ve seen that guy win without goggles.”
Phelps celebrated by kissing his three-month son, Boomer, on each cheek, but as he pointed out this isn’t the last the world will see of him this week. He is likely to have seven more races and several more gold medals. As Dwyer put it: “He is just proving he is easily the greatest swimmer of all time. And I am excited to see what he does next because once that guy gets hot you can’t really stop him.”
Few would argue with that, or Phelps’ victory celebration in the 200m butterfly. First he held one finger up to tell the world he was still the best. Then two hands shot up skywards in triumph, acknowledging the crowd. Finally he gave a lingering fist pump, as if to say this is still my domain, even now, after all these years. Given what we had just witnessed, no one was dare going to argue.