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

The Daily Telegraph - Total Football - - RIO 2016 -

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

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