Michael Phelps becomes the most-decorated Olympic athlete ever — and a little more human along the way
Los Angeles Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Aug 1, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 2:35 a.m. HST, Aug 1, 2012
LONDON » Michael Phelps shared his celebration with a pool and a world.
He put his arm around the South African kid who had just beaten him in one of his signature races, guiding the protege through the medal protocol. He went out of his way to compliment a French sprinter on what he thought was one of the five best swims of all time. He gathered his relay teammates to thank them for their help, and to tell them he might be too choked up to sing the national anthem.
And then he left the pool, with a giddy smile and the greatest collection of medals any Olympian has ever seen.
"I'm going to attempt to sleep," he said. "I'm not sure if it's going to be possible."
It was a matter of time until Phelps set the career record for Olympic medals. It was a matter of joy when the moment finally happened on Tuesday, the smile coming out and the mask coming off. No longer is Phelps aloof on his island, where human interaction was a distraction from the gold rush.
This time around, he is a teammate, and not just in name only.
"A little more human instead of like this machine," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' longtime coach, "because really when you do the thing like we did in Beijing, he's not interacting with many people except me and the massage therapist. He's just kind of going about his business.
"I think this time he has really gotten to know more people."
Phelps made Olympic history in Beijing with eight golds in eight tries. He made Olympic history Tuesday with a silver medal in the 200-meter butterfly and a gold medal in the 800 freestyle relay. With 19 total medals, he broke the record previously owned by Soviet gymnast Larysa Latynina. By the time he leaves London, he could have three more.
"Records are meant to be broken," said U.S. teammate Ricky Berens, "but I'll give that one a long time in the record books."
Allison Schmitt, who took a year off from college and moved to Maryland to train with Phelps, set an Olympic record to win the gold medal in the 200 freestyle. Caitlin Leverenz took the bronze in the 200 individual medley.
With the swimming competition at its halfway point, the U.S. has 16 medals, six of them gold. China ranks second with seven medals, including three golds.
Phelps would swim two events in his long-anticipated evening of glory, virtually assured of winning a medal of some color in both. In the 200 fly, an event in which he won gold in 2004 and 2008, he led from start to the final split-second.
Chad le Clos, a 20-year-old South African who grew up idolizing Phelps, lunged for the wall and hit it five-hundredths of a second before Phelps did.
"This is the greatest moment of my life," Le Clos said.
Phelps, who has endured criticism that his superior talent has not always been accompanied by a superior work ethic, conceded the point and said it had cost him the gold medal.
"There are times where I've come sort of lazy into the wall," he said, "and that came out at the moment that I needed it the most."
Nonetheless, he had a medal, and with it a tie for the Olympic record. History would come an hour later, when the U.S. roared to a lopsided victory in the 800 free relay. Ryan Lochte, Berens and Conor Dwyer handed Phelps a big lead for the victorious anchor lap.
So Phelps did something he said he never did. He took off his game face before the game was over.
"I started to smile with 20, 25 meters to go," he said. "It was a cool feeling."
He lingered in the pool, bathing in the glory of his record. He hopped onto the deck, huddled with his teammates to thank them. He looked relieved and excited and unusually approachable all together, even if he could not quite put his emotions into words.
"I'm kind of at a loss for words right now," Phelps said. "I mean, everything is kind of happening. Being able to do something that nobody has ever done before, that is what I always have said I wanted to do."
Said Lochte, his American friend and rival: "What is it, 19? That's unheard of.
"Any time you can make history, it's just unbelievable. What he has done for this sport, I don't think anyone can ever duplicate that."
The most passionate argument came not from someone in red, white and blue but from Le Clos, who could scarcely believe he had beaten the mighty Phelps.
"In South Africa, everybody knows Michael Phelps," Le Clos said.
On his laptop, Le Clos said, he keeps a video of one of Phelps' races, with audio in seven different languages.
"I'm his biggest fan," Le Clos said. "He is definitely the greatest Olympian of all time."