‘23’ was sacrosanct on the flying back of Air Jordan. Now 23 will forever be the gold medal count which rode on that glorious gleaming back of Michael Phelps — or what the world glimpsed waving in and out of water, for most part in blue pools from Athens to Beijing to London to Rio. Half of the greatness of the world’s greatest Olympian went unseen under-water — including the enigmatic turns that added to the excitement this time around as he took his Olympic tally to 28 medals.
Greatness and perfection aren’t boring, contrary to the contrarian belief. If you have to see that almighty splash in water over four Olympics as a mere sum-total of all those medals, then Phelps’s achievements will hang like a giant blimp high in the sky — there’s awe and admiration, but the distance kills the love. Perhaps the world ought to see his career as a bunch of colourful balloons, each gold medal different from the other, strung high and low, every silver holding a story different from the gold.
Because there has been a flurry of medals — and gold rush wasn’t just a Charlie Chaplin masterpiece in the dozen years that he ruled waters — it’s difficult to give Phelps’s career the crests and troughs that every sporting career teems with. It all seems like a flat-out dominance, though personal setbacks, the drug offence, a half-considered retirement in 2012 and his return can add some depth to the brilliant tale of greatness which has broken a record from ancient Olympics.
But obviously, not all golds gleamed the same. Phelps has spoken at length about how malcontent he was with the 2012 gold medals — the eight at 2008 seemed to have summited him out. He has spoken of how he winged a few gold medals on sheer talent, though the physical talent ought to be a pictorial tome and scientific literary extravagance in itself. But there was a reason why 2012 trundled on and led to 2016.
“I’ve been able to do everthing I put my mind to in this sport. Twenty-four years in this sport. Happy with how things have finished. That’s why I came back after 2012. I didn’t want to have a what-if 20 years later. Being able to close the door on this sport the way I want to, that’s why I’m happy. I’m ready to retire and happy about it,” he would say.
This was soon after he lost a proud race in the 100-fly to Singaporean Joseph Schooling, who as a bespectacled, autograph-seeking schoolboy had decided he would ace swimming, and who wound up beating his ultimate hero.
Still, it didn’t seem that the loss had hurt Phelps like the one against Chad Le Clos last time around, in the 200-fly. That had hurt in ways that Phelps hadn’t imagined. This time Phelps said he was happiest even sharing the silver with two others, as Schooling took gold.
‘Kind of cool’
Asked if he had been in a three-way tie before, Phelps said, “A three-way tie is pretty wild. It’s faster than I went I think four years ago to win… We all tied for second, that’s kind of cool.”
There are races and then there are races, and for the greatest human oar of all time, he was in good company when the end of the golds neared, in a relay with team-mates. “Kind of special and decent way to finish my last race. Can’t complain too much,” said Phelps, marking an end to a celebrated career that started when he was a teen and finishes with him as a 31-year-old cuddling his baby son, Boomer, and looking forward to a winter wedding.
“It’s the most exciting thing — being able to get out there with team mates and try to put together a fast relay,” he has said earlier.
Yes, there was the phenomental 200 m individual medley gold, his fourth in a row. And there’s the humongous target for whoever wishes to beat Phelps’s record. It’s a benevolent Moby Dick out in the ocean of swim-greatness.
It hit him the morning of the penultimate race, he said, that he would put on his racing suit just two more times.
“Those tiny things. It’s wild to think that over 20 years ago, I learned to swim, and it’s all stopping, competition wise, in the next 48 hours.”
It’s the glorious time we live in where greatness personified speaks this tongue — cool, wild, etc. There’s no kid out there who wouldn’t understand.