This should be stressful, because he is 31 and no longer technically in what would rank as the best racing form of his life. That was years ago, when his body would respond on command. Throttle back, no problem. The gas was always there.
How, then, did Michael Phelps end up hanging on the lane line, in an Olympic final no less, waiting for the rest of the field to finish? He touched the wall and won the 200-meter individual medley Thursday night at Olympic Aquatics Center, and when he did, a race whose result might have been considered in question just two minutes earlier was instead etched in stone.
The next finisher, Japan’s Kosuke Hagino, touched 1.95 seconds after Phelps. In the course of your day, that’s a sip of coffee. In swimming, it’s a long, lazy summer afternoon. Phelps could have knitted a sweater or FaceTimed his infant son. Either way, he had a shockingly easy gold. And because the numbers are an essential part of who he is and what he is doing here, we offer them again: four golds in Rio, 22 golds in his career, 26 medals overall. The gap between that total and the next-closest Olympian in history is something like the gap between Phelps and the field Thursday night, because Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina, who Phelps blew past in London four years ago, is second with 18 Olympic medals.
“I mean, it’s Michael,” said Ryan Lochte, a 12-time Olympic medalist himself. “Nothing surprises me anymore with that guy.”
Phelps’s performance came on the latest remarkable night for the U.S. swim team, which is outperforming most countries in Rio. Simone Manuel became the first African American ever to win an Olympic medal in an individual swimming event, storming to gold in the 100 freestyle. And Ryan Murphy, a young Floridian who swims at Cal, won his second gold of the Rio Games, this in the 200-meter backstroke.
Because this is Phelps’s final Olympics — at least, what he says is his final Olympics — it was appropriate that two young athletes might take his efforts to expand swimming and run . . . er, swim with them. The significance of Manuel’s victory, in an Olympic record 52.70 seconds that was tied by Canadian teenager Penny Oleksiak — meaning they both received golds — was apparent immediately. Even at 20, Manuel knew there were young African American girls watching, and that mattered.
“Hopefully it will get them inspired,” Manuel said. “The gold medal wasn’t just for me. It was for people who have came before me and inspired me to stay in this sport, and for people who believe that they can’t do it. I hope that I’m an inspiration to others to get out there and try swimming. They might be pretty good at it.”
So, then, the Phelps revolution of the sport continued in myriad ways as he closes his career. That he crushed the 200 IM on such a night also seemed to fit. Though he first made the Olympics in the 200 butterfly, back when he was a floppy-eared, gangly-armed 15-year-old, it is the two events he swam Thursday night in which he had never lost gold at the Games. The final of the 100-meter butterfly — presumably the last individual race of Phelps’s career — comes Friday night, and he positioned himself fifth by swimming a semifinal heat of 51.58 seconds.
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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Barry Svrluga