The gold, agony and tri­umph of Michael Phelps

The Myanmar Times - - Sport -

MICHAEL Phelps’ past and present con­verged at the Rio Olympics in a last ex­plo­sion of gold for a swim­ming icon who showed he is more than a “medal ma­chine”.

Af­ter amass­ing 22 medals, 18 of them gold, in four prior cam­paigns, Phelps de­liv­ered an epic end­ing to his Olympic saga in Rio de Janeiro, pow­er­ing to five gold medals and one sil­ver in seven days.

He leaves Rio with 28 medals to his name, 23 of them gold. No other ath­lete in any sport comes close.

In a de­par­ture from Games past, Phelps’ fifth Olympics of­fered a glimpse not only of a sport­ing great re­lent­less in pur­suit of success but also of a man buoyed by warm re­la­tion­ships head­ing pur­pose­fully into a post-swim­ming life.

That was not a pic­ture pre­sented be­fore by Phelps, not as a young striver in his first Olympics at 15 in Syd­ney in 2000, not in Athens in 2004 where he ar­rived work­ing his way up into the heavy­weights along­side Ian Thorpe and Pi­eter van den Hoogen­band.

Haunted

star It cer­tainly wasn’t the Phelps of 2008 in Bei­jing, when the un­prece­dented achieve­ment of eight gold medals at a sin­gle Games re­quired an iso­lat­ing de­ter­mi­na­tion and fo­cus.

Lon­don 2012 was sup­posed to pro­vide the fond farewell. And it wasn’t un­til af­ter the fact that Phelps lifted the cur­tain to re­veal the anger and un­hap­pi­ness of those Games, when he wanted noth­ing more than to be done with swim­ming.

De­spite four gold medals and two sil­vers, Phelps was “haunted” by know­ing he failed to pre­pare as he could have and par­tic­u­larly stung by the loss of the 200m but­ter­fly ti­tle he sur­ren­dered to Chad le Clos.

Phelps said he had felt him­self “start­ing to crack” with emo­tion as he went to the Rio pool Satur­day where he played a de­ci­sive role in his fi­nal re­lay vic­tory.

“This is how I wanted to fin­ish my ca­reer. I’ve lived a dream come true. Be­ing able to cap it off with th­ese Games is just the per­fect way to fin­ish,” said the 31-year-old.

Rio, ac­cord­ing Phelps’ coach of 20 years Bob Bow­man, was the swim­mer’s chance to fash­ion the end­ing he de­served.

“He men­tions it all the time that he wants to go out on his own terms – on good terms, not ‘Let’s get out of here,’” Bow­man said.

But a come­back launched in 2014 ground to a halt within months when Phelps’ per­sonal demons caught up with him in a Mary­land tun­nel. He was clocked driv­ing 84mph (135 km/h) in a 45mph zone while un­der the in­flu­ence of al­co­hol.

The in­ci­dent launched Phelps on a “bru­tal” per­sonal jour­ney that in­cluded a stay at a fa­cil­ity spe­cial­is­ing in per­sonal trauma and ad­dic­tion treat­ment.

Re­con­nec­tion

There Phelps, who af­ter his par­ents’ di­vorce was brought up by his mother, Deb­bie, re­con­nected with his es­tranged fa­ther.

That re­newed re­la­tion­ship has taken on even greater res­o­nance since Phelps be­came a fa­ther. Fi­ancee Ni­cole John­son gave birth to their son, Boomer, in May.

John­son and Boomer were front and cen­tre in Rio, Phelps seal­ing the cel­e­bra­tion of his longed for 200m fly vic­tory with a ten­der kiss for the baby boy as the Olympic crowd roared.

It was the kind of ex­pan­sive pub­lic demon­stra­tion the old Phelps rarely al­lowed him­self, just as the old Phelps wouldn’t have let him­self get too emo­tional on the 200m med­ley medal stand, know­ing he had a 100m but­ter­fly semi com­ing up.

“That was nice to see, ac­tu­ally,” said Bow­man, adding that in the past he would have coun­selled Phelps not to bask in the mo­ment but to “build the fire up in you while you’re hear­ing the na­tional an­them”.

“He’s usu­ally like a ma­chine on those,” Bow­man said, in­vok­ing a word of­ten used in con­nec­tion with Phelps.

Bow­man has called Phelps a “mo­ti­va­tion ma­chine” spurred to ac­tion by the slight­est snub, and the sheer num­ber of his tri­umphs have earned him the rep­u­ta­tion of a “medal ma­chine”.

Bow­man, how­ever, said each one of those golds was the prod­uct of sweat and stress.

“Ev­ery one of those was hard,” Bow­man said. “Maybe the very first one was the eas­i­est one. Af­ter that they’ve all been super-hard.”

Bow­man, who first de­tected the de­ter­mi­na­tion he cites as Phelps’s great­est as­set when he be­gan coach­ing the 11-year-old swim­mer, has lived through some stormy times with Phelps. He watched as Phelps fought through youth­ful scan­dals in­clud­ing his first drink-driv­ing charge at 19 and a tabloid ruckus over a pic­ture of Phelps with a mar­i­juana pipe in 2009.

Their re­la­tion­ship hit rock bot­tom as Lon­don ap­proached, but Bow­man said Phelps in Rio is re­ally changed.

Phelps soaked up as­pects of the Olympic ex­pe­ri­ence he pre­vi­ously ig­nored -- serv­ing as a cap­tain on the US team for the first time, car­ry­ing the US flag at the open­ing cer­e­mony he had never be­fore at­tended.

Lov­ing it

Then he dived in and did what Michael Phelps does, help­ing the US to gold in the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle re­lays, aveng­ing his 2012 200m fly loss to le Clos and notch­ing his fourth straight 200m in­di­vid­ual med­ley ti­tle.

Even his lone sil­ver – to Sin­ga­pore sen­sa­tion Joseph School­ing in the 100m fly – car­ried a whiff of the ex­tra­or­di­nary: It was a rare three-way tie with le Clos and Phelps’s long­time Hun­gar­ian ri­val Las­zlo Cseh.

“I think he wants to wrap it up know­ing that he gave ev­ery­thing and pre­pared well did it the right way,” Bow­man said. “And he loves it.”

His success in the pool – far from as­sured when the Games be­gan – raises the ques­tion: How could he not come back?

“I just don’t see it hap­pen­ing,” Bow­man said. “I think he’s in such a good place per­son­ally he doesn’t need it.

Photos, graphic: AFP

Michael Phelps dives in dur­ing the men’s swim­ming 4 x 100m ned­ley re­lay fi­nal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

Phelps re­tires as the most dec­o­rated Olympian, ever.

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