Phelps finally having fun as he seeks to polish iconic status
Oliver Brown in Rio says fatherhood has changed swimming great as he chases a nineteenth gold
Whether it is the virtuous flush of fatherhood, or the fact that he has only recently come out of rehab for a drinking problem, Michael Phelps is relishing the Rio Olympics. This is, in itself, a novel development. In his prime, when he was sweeping up gold medals as insouciantly as some collect sovereign coins, he was a goggled android, a swimmer who derived much of his greatness from his ability to keep himself so psychologically cocooned.
Enjoyment was seldom on the Phelps agenda. But here in Brazil, in the knowledge that these are his last Games and that his threemonth-old son, Boomer, will be at the pool today – colourful ear defenders provided – for his first individual race, after the 4x100m freestyle relay early this morning, he appears a man at peace. “Before I would have my headphones on and not talk to anybody,” he said. “I’m a lot more open and relaxed.”
A factor in this mellowing is Phelps’s belated recognition of his place in history. Recently he moved, with his fiancée Nicole, into a house on the outskirts of Phoenix, far removed from the distractions and temptations that lurk for him in his home town of Baltimore, where in 2014 he was caught drink-driving by police after spending all night at a casino. In his quieter life in the Arizona desert, he insists that he is always in bed by 10pm. One afternoon, he even took time to survey his collection of 22 Olympic medals. “Yeah,” he said to himself. “That’s pretty cool.”
We have few ways left to express the degree of Phelps’s preeminence in the Olympic pantheon, but this is one: should he prevail as expected in the final of the 200 metres individual medley, he will have 19 golds, more than twice as many as his four nearest pursuers. For their time, Carl Lewis, Mark Spitz, Paavo Nurmi and former Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina were unquestioned greats, but even with nine golds apiece they are not in the same equation as Phelps. His body of work will stand for decades, perhaps longer, as the ultimate benchmark.
The caveat is that he has the luxury in swimming of chasing a haul of golds unthinkable in any other sport. Usain Bolt, the one figure who can match Phelps for sheer transcendence at Rio 2016, can contemplate no more than three. In rowing, which requires four years of monkish selfsacrifice, you are limited to one. The pool, by contrast, offers a multiplicity of stroke styles and relays that enable the very best to plunder an embarrassment of individual riches.
‘He is unambiguous in declaring the past two years as the most satisfying of his life’
Nobody should under estimate, though, how fiendishly difficult it is to translate the aspiration into reality. Ryan Lochte, Phelps’s long-time rival on the American team, set himself a target of six golds at London 2012 and came unstuck from the outset, finishing with only two. Missy Franklin, likewise, threw herself into seven different races four years ago, winning four.
Phelps’s eight from eight at Beijing 2008 will come to be regarded, in time, as a high-water mark of this or any generation. But it did not come without a generous dose of brinkmanship: in the final of the 100m butterfly, he looked on most replays to have lost to Serbia’s Milorad Cavic, before being awarded the victory by virtue of driving harder into the wall.
In Rio, Phelps has restricted the fruits of his gold rush to a more modest six. On this occasion, we should temper expectations of a 100 per cent conversion rate: in the 200m butterfly, he is likely to lose out either to South African Chad le Clos or Hungary’s Lazslo Cseh, while young Sinaporean Joseph Schooling – who, at 21, is the same age as Phelps was when he dominated the field at Athens 2004 – offers a formidable threat over 100m.
But swimming’s nonpareil maintains that he is content to be here at all. At 31, Phelps has long since passed pensionable age for a swimmer, but he purports to have rediscovered his passion in the wake of his first, aborted retirement post-London. A tentative few minutes of “splashing around”, he reflects, were all that he needed to feel like a child again. As such, he has resolved to treat this, his fourth Olympics, as a wonderfully unexpected novelty. Phelps is unambiguous in declaring that the past two years have been the most richly satisfying of his life. Besides having a child and purging himself of his weakness for the bottle, he has also reconnected with his father, Fred, having initially wanted nothing to do with him after his parents’ acrimonious divorce.
They have re-established their relationship tentatively, with a weekly phone call, and while it is uncertain whether Fred will travel to Rio this week, Phelps argues that improved harmony between father and son has had a “huge” effect upon his happiness.
The presence of his own son is also a galvanising force. “My emotions will be 10 times what they have ever been,” he said. “To have your first-born come to your last Olympics is a feeling you can’t even describe. He is growing so much, his expressions are changing so much.
Plus, he is going to have some cool outfits on. Boomer will be dressed to impress in the stands, that’s for sure.”
Intriguingly, there are some who wonder aloud whether Phelps’s talk of Rio as his curtain call is sincere. He has shown enough times, after all, that his addiction to the adrenalin of winning is insatiable.
“I honestly don’t think this is going to be his last Olympics,” said Lochte, who has better insight into Phelps’s restless mindset than most.
“You miss it really quickly after retiring. I’m saying that he’s going to come back.”
Phelps regards these comments with a laconic smirk. It is a favourite game of his, as he showed with his volte face over making London his swansong, to keep the public guessing.
One can but hope, if he stays true to his word, that he signs off with the flourish that he deserves.
Out on his own: Phelps has an unrivalled haul of gold medals