RIO de JANEIRO — The thing I remember most about that day, the day when Michael Phelps won his eighth gold medal in Beijing as part of the 4x100m medley relay, was just staring at a photograph.
Remember the photograph? You’ve seen it for sure. The legendary sports photograph Heinz Kluetmeier took it from the bottom of the swimming pool, pointing up. It showed two men. One, of course, was Michael Phelps. The other was a brash and talented Serbian butterflier named Milorad Cavic. They were at the finish. They were both about to touch the wall.
Only the photo, through the illusion of light and angles and water and air, showed Cavic just millimeters from the wall while Phelps seemed to be two or three feet away. The photo made it seem impossible, utterly impossible, for Phelps to win the race.
But Phelps did win the race — by 0.01 of a second.
Anyway, that Phelps-Cavic race had been a couple of days earlier, so the photograph didn’t have anything to do with my eight gold medals story. Still I stared at that photograph and stared at it and stared at it. Deadline approached. The office was pinging me on instant message. Need that story. How’s it going? Deadline arrived. Big day today. Need that story. Deadline passed. You there? Um. Hello?
I looked at my computer and realized that the screen was entirely blank. I looked back at the photograph in search of something, I don’t know, inspiration or a bolt of lightning or a lede. That’s when I realized something horrifying.
I had used up all the words I had on Michael Phelps.
And that was EIGHT years ago.
The final Phelps total (final? we’ll see) is 28 Olympic medals total, one shy of Indonesia, the fourth most populous country on earth.
The final Phelps total (final? heard that before) is 23 Olympic gold medals, one shy of the host country Brazil (judoka Rafaela Silva won Brazil’s 24th earlier in the Games).
The final Phelps total (you keep using that word “final” like you mean it) is 26 world championship gold medals, 39 world records, a #PhelpsFace meme that figures to keep on entertaining for months and perhaps years to come and a few million launched dreams.
And here at the end, if this is the end, the question once more — the question that Michael Phelps has probably posed more than any American athlete of his generation including Tiger Woods and LeBron James and Serena Williams — remains: What words are left to use?
Most of the words spilled on Phelps at these Olympics have described his newfound sense of being. He’s 31 now. He’s a father now. He’s made his mistakes. He’s learned from them. He’s found a life rhythm that suits him better. Anyway, he looks happier.
He promised to enjoy these Olympics much more than the last four, and he certainly seemed to live up to his word, carrying the flag in the Opening Ceremony, taking the time to hang around some of the other athletes (“Hey, that’s Novak Djokovic!”), allowing himself to take off the headset every now and again and just look around a bit, take everything in, feel what his swimming does for people. He splashed happily after victory. He cried on the medal stand. He took photos with his son Boomer.
Of course, we don’t know, can’t know, what ticks inside Michael Phelps, just as we don’t know and can’t know why he keeps winning long after mere mortals fade. One of the most underrated achievements Phelps pulled off at these Olympics was this one: He became the oldest swimmer to win an individual event (for a day). And he actually won TWO individual events, the 200m butterfly and 200m individual medley. They’re both grueling events. And he won them both by A LOT.
How does he do that? Hard work? Sure. Focus? Sure. Athletic talent? Sure. An unparalleled racing competitiveness? Sure. But even total them all together, and it still doesn’t make sense. It’s still impossible.
Oh, but I’ve used the word “impossible” too many times writing about Phelps. We all have. We keep running out of words. The thesaurus keeps running dry.
Phelps’ last gold medal (OK, it just seems ridiculous to keep up this facade that this is the end for Phelps — he’s still the BEST SWIMMER ON EARTH — but he says it’s over so we have to keep saying it this way) happened Saturday in the 4x100m medley relay. The U.S. men never lose that. No, seriously, never, the only time another country ever won the medley relay was when Australia took gold in 1980, and that’s because the U.S. wasn’t there.
So, the U.S. was going to win this thing. But Phelps did his part. He swam his typically great 100m butterfly and gave the lead to Nathan Adrian, who freestyled it home. It was a touching moment, being the end, and for everyone who has watched Phelps these last 16 years — meaning, more or less, the entire world — memories rushed back. I’m sure it was that way all across America. And the world.
For me, that meant going back to that day in Beijing, the blank computer screen, the panicking office, the photograph of Phelps and Cavic. I don’t think that photo did give me the inspiration I needed that day but it did prompt me months later to speak with Cavic about the race. He was a nice guy, and he talked without bitterness about how close he had come to taking that gold medal from Phelps. And Cavic told me how before the race, he had tried to stir things up with some comments, hoping to make get inside Phelps’ head a bit. It did not quite work, obviously, but Cavic still thought it was worth the effort.
“As hard as it is to believe,” Cavic said, “Michael’s human too.”
That was 2008. Phelps being human was hard to believe. It’s 2016, and somehow, it’s even harder to believe now.