RIO DE JANEIRO – The crowd at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium was different Tuesday night.
It reacted unlike the swimming crowds had the first three nights of the Olympic meet, when the loudest noise had been reserved for Brazilian athletes, none of whom had yet contended for medals. I suddenly felt as if I were at a Passover seder, hearing the question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
The difference was a chance to see an athlete for the ages, to see him firsthand in his first individual final of these Olympics, a moment of universal significance, a moment the spectators relished.
When Michael Phelps was announced at the start of the 200-meter butterfly, the crowd roared and roared.
It was that way at the end, too, after Phelps had extracted payback for his loss in the event four years ago. He straddled a lane line, flexed his right arm, put the index finger of each hand in the air. The noise grew. Phelps gestured with his hands, asking the crowd for more, and they responded with fervor.
The victory and the acclaim, for his swimming achievements and his impact on the sport and the Olympics, all of it has combined to convince me of something I had argued against in the past.
Michael Phelps is no longer just the most decorated Olympian of all time and the best swimmer of all time.
He is the greatest Olympian of all time.
He won two gold medals in 75 minutes Tuesday, one by .04 seconds (smallest winning margin in the 200 butterfly’s Olympic history), the second as anchor of a dominant 4x200 freestyle (barely 15 minutes after crying and laughing through the butterfly awards ceremony).
They were Proustian remembrances of Phelps past, of the younger man who swam 17 races in eight events, one race coming inexorably after the other, all in a seeming instant, as he won a matchless eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics.
Katie Ledecky, who had won her second individual swimming gold 10 minutes before Phelps took the 200 butterfly, is as inexhaustible at 19 as Phelps was at that age. For him, 19 came at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, when he also had 17 races in eight events and won six gold and two bronze medals.
“He just won two gold medals and he’s how old? 31?” Ledecky marveled. “It’s crazy what he did tonight.”
Phelps had a nearly synonymous description of his Olympic career, with its record 21 gold medals and 25 total medals – so far. Among them are 12 individual golds, a total that hasn’t been seen since Leonidas of Rhodes did it 2,168 years ago by winning three footraces in four consecutive Olympiads.
“I was talking to Bob (Bowman, his forever coach) the other night,” Phelps said during a press conference in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. “We’ve won a lot of medals. It’s just insane. It’s mind-blowing.”
My contention in the past always had been that the nature of swimming made mind-blowing medal totals so much more possible than they are in many other sports, notably track and field, that the totals need to be discounted.
I noted that swimmers are cushioned by water from the physical pounding of running and jumping. Swimmers often can cross over between strokes in a way impossible in track.
Missy Franklin won a gold medal in the 100 backstroke at the 2012 Olympics 14 minutes after qualifying for the final in the 200 free. No runner or rower would dare attempt that.
In 2008, after Phelps won the gold that gave him more of those than anyone in Olympic history, I wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “Would everyone stop hyperventilating over Michael Phelps?” At that point, I placed him sixth on my all-time list, behind runner-jumper Carl Lewis, runner Paavo Nurmi, gymnast Larissa Latynina, kayaker Birgit Fischer-Schmidt and rower Steven Redgrave. By the end of the Beijing Olympics, after his record-setting eight golds, I moved him to fourth.
In 2012, when Phelps claimed the Olympic record for total medals, when his stated intention was to retire, I wrote in the Tribune he would be “forever below Carl Lewis.”
Forever was based on 2012 being the end of his career.
For Phelps, the ensuing four years would bring a comeback, personal turmoil (a second DUI arrest, USA Swimming suspension, stint in rehab), a fiancée and their infant son. The swimmer who had tried to surf his way through the London Olympics with the dedication of a beach bum began authoring a redemption narrative that included a full commitment to training.
The last-stroke defeat (.05 seconds) by South Africa’s Chad le Clos in the 200 butterfly in London would be among the things that motivated Phelps.
The 200 fly is his signature event, the one in which he had made his first of five Olympics in 2000. (No other U.S. male swimmer has competed in five.). It is an event in which he holds the world record, the event in which he had not lost a major race for more than a decade before 2012.
Last year, he heard trash-talking from both le Clos and Laszlo Cseh of Hungary, who won the world title in the 200 butterfly while Phelps stayed home because the DUI incident also led USA Swimming to bar him from the world meet.
“I came to the pool tonight with a mission,” Phelps said Wednesday. “There wasn’t a shot in hell I was losing that. And if I did, every ounce I had would be left in the pool.”
No victory defined Phelps’ place in history better than this one. That he managed to hold off Japan’s Masato Sakai, a fresh-faced 21-year-old, clearly showed a competitive will that only the greatest athletes have.
“The last 10 meters were not fun,” Phelps said. “I felt like I was standing still.”
When it was over, he stood again on the top step of an awards podium.
This time, he also stood alone upon the summit of Olympus.
Philip Hersh, who is covering his 18th Olympic Games and was the Chicago Tribune’s Olympic specialist for 30 years, is a contributor to TeamUSA.org.