Swimming: Phelps takes final plunge towards total vindication
Michael Phelps is an Olympic legend but he is looking more vulnerable than ever, says Kevin Mitchell
Swimming looks the most beguilingly simple of sports -- get in, swim, get out -- but, as Michael Phelps, Ian Thorpe and many others have discovered, there are demons and temptations in those quiet, laned waters.
Thorpe, for instance, could not stay away from the pool after retiring in 2006 with five gold medals -- including a win over Phelps at the 2004 Olympics in the 200m freestyle -- and 11 world titles. A major celebrity in Australia, a water-bound country and beach-based culture that demands consistent, world-class excellence from its swimmers, he gave in to what he probably suspected all along were the unrealistic hopes of making a comeback in London. Phelps remarked at the time of his rival's final failed attempt in March: "That's not the Ian Thorpe that I swam against in 2004."
Thorpe struggled with the reality of his dilemma, so much so that, at 29, he has committed himself to trying again in 2016. It is tempting to wonder what else there can be in his life.
Swimming has been Phelps' life as well but, at 27, he is getting ready to walk away and is determined not to let anxiety, or the expectation of others, spoil the farewell party in London.
The American reckons it would be "kinda cool to rewrite history", as he has done, one way or another, at every Olympics he has attended since Sydney 2000. If he were any more laid back, however, as he attempts to become the most decorated Olympian of all time, he might fall asleep while making the last-lap flip in the final of his pet event, the 200m butterfly.
He has given the impression lately he is less worried than everyone else about winning the three medals of any colour he needs to surpass the tally of the Soviet gymnast, Larisa Latynina -- who won 18 (nine gold, five silver and four bronze) in consecutive Games between 1956 and 1964.
He is, after all, already the greatest swimmer in history. Eight of his 16 Olympic medals came in an adrenalin gold rush in Beijing four years ago, although life has been much tougher since. Preparations for his farewell Olympics have hardly been smooth. Phelps' American team-mate and rival Tyler Clary -- making his Olympic debut in London, but not shy of an opinion -- started the most recent ruckus with a remark to his local paper in California that Phelps, who trains up to five hours a day, seven days a week, was, well, lazy.
"The fact that he doesn't have to work as hard to get that done, it's a real shame," Clary told The Press-Enterprise in Riverside. "I think it's too bad. I think the things he could have done if he'd worked as hard as I do would have been even more incredible than what he has pulled off."
Clary provides insight into the demands of his sport. The grind of clipping decimal points off personal best times is relentless, boring and inevitable. Phelps, typically, is not bothered. When it was put to him in Tennessee recently what Clary had said, he shrugged and said his only goal was to "step up, wear the Stars and Stripes and try to swim as fast as I can".
Phelps thinks he can do it, although he effects calmness bordering on indifference. "I know it won't be eight medals again," he says, confirming the obvious, as he has been entered in only four events: the 200 and 400m individual medley, as well as the 100 and 200m fly. "If you guys want to compare me to [his success in Beijing], it's your decision, not mine." He adds: "I'm way out there to try to accomplish the things I have in my mind and heart and, if I can do that and have fun, that's really all that matters to me."
The concept of swimming-as-fun is alien to anyone who has subjected themselves to the torture of getting ready for serious competition, but Phelps, clearly, is trying to calm the hype building inexorably around him.
"Once I hang my suit up, I want to be able to look back and say I've done everything I could in my career and, whether that's having 50 gold medals or having 16 total medals, if I can say I did all I wanted, that's all that matters."
He has been like this all his life, often swimming against the tide, seldom concerned about the expectations of others, confident in his talent to deliver when it matters most. In events below the glamour of the Olympics, he has not always looked invincible, especially for the past couple of years. He has rivals everywhere. Ryan Lochte, who beat him by 0.35 of a second at last year's World Championships, to win gold, for instance. This year it was tough, too. In the Charlotte Grand Prix, China's Wu Peng beat him into second place in the 200m butterfly. More worryingly, Phelps swam 1:56.8, more than five seconds outside his world record at the 2009 World Championships in Rome. The day before, he finished second in the 200m freestyle.
"This is not the Olympics," he said then, unflustered as ever. "These are little quizzes." He got his swimming together to qualify, but he is getting on for a swimmer and arrives looking vulnerable.
A graph of Phelps' life might start with a flat line back in quiet Towson, a suburb of Maryland, 20 years ago under the tutelage of Bob Bowman in one of American swimming's major nurseries. His progress was steady then spectacular, garlanded in medals, interrupted here and there by setbacks and controversy. He coped with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder from a young age, as well as the divorce of his parents, and by 10 he had broken his first national junior record. In 2000, he was the youngest male swimmer to go the Olympics in 68 years, failing to medal, but four years later in Athens he made his splash with six golds, two bronze, three Olympic and two world records. Since then it has been rolling pandemonium of one kind or another.
It was about 2004 when the script started going a little sour. Phelps was caught drinking and driving in Baltimore at 19. He regretted it and moved on. Thereafter sponsors flocked to him, and it seemed he was fireproof. But the events after Beijing threatened to puncture his irresistible rise.
Phelps pretty much went missing for months. "After 2008, I just didn't want to do it," he says. "I knew deep down I wanted to do it but I didn't want to put in the work. There were times when I wouldn't come to practice. It didn't excite me. I was just going through the motions. In 2009 and 2010, that's how I was."
The low point arrived early in February 2009. At a student party at the University of South Carolina, Phelps put a bong to his lips and the News of the World splashed the story with glee. He apologised, admitting his behaviour was "inappropriate", that catch-all phrase that admits little beyond embarrassment. While no charges of drug-taking were brought, due to lack of evidence, USA Swimming suspended him for three months.
Phelps tried to limit the damage by accepting the sanctions and, again, expressing regret. His agent, Drew Johnson, issued a statement: "He feels bad he let anyone down. He's also encouraged by the thousands of comments he's received from his fans and the support from his many sponsors. He intends to work hard to regain everyone's trust."
To be fair to Phelps, he has done exactly that. "In later 2010," he continues, "I started showing more interest and it revolved around me being about to find the passion again. I'm sure Bob [Bowman] could have given that in 2009, but it was something I just had to find for myself. Once I found it, I enjoyed coming to work. It wasn't like pulling my hair, kicking and screaming. The last few years, my training hasn't gone too well and my performances haven't been too great. But it's an exciting time, and this is going to be a fun summer."
And, when he swivels those powerful shoulders through the excruciating butterfly action over his favoured distance, 200m, against the Australian Nick D'Arcy (who beat him last year when he was woefully off the pace) and other aspiring king-killers, he will be looking for a little vindication. It might be the incentive he needs.
D'Arcy, no angel himself, comes from the fine tradition of Australian larrikins in the pool stretching back to the great Dawn Fraser. He and team-mate Kenrick Monk will create Olympic history by being sent home before the closing ceremony -- whatever they achieve in the pool -- for brandishing firearms in a photo on Facebook.
Swimming has always attracted athletes who manage to make life complicated for themselves and everyone around them. It might be -- as hinted at by Clary -- the mind-numbing routine of clocking up all those watery miles that inspires their rebellion, or maybe the discipline is the antidote to their innate sense of chaos. It could be mere coincidence, of course. Testosterone and its variants are powerful influences in the hothouse of elite sport.
Phelps is not as blasé as he seems. He is aware of the media attention bearing down on him and takes comfort in how others handle it. "The person who's helped me through [most] is Ray Lewis [the Baltimore Ravens linebacker who was cleared of a murder charge after a post-Super Bowl party fight in Atlanta in 2000]," he says. "Our friendship has helped me a lot. Hearing how he's handled himself and how he does things makes me feel differently. This has been a goal of mine from way back: to promote swimming and take it to a new level. We've seen so many changes in the last 10 years."
Phelps is probably feeling the weight of history. He met Latynina a little while ago and, naturally, it was "definitely pretty cool", although he admits, "I honestly didn't know what the record was until I was told this year. I was in New York, doing a photo shoot. The language was variable. She had a translator. She was very excited.
"It was exciting to meet such a legend, an icon in the Olympic movement. We spent a couple of hours together, joking around. She gave me a medal from the early 50s, a USA v Russia [Soviet Union, actually] gymnastic competition. It was probably one of the coolest things that's been given to me."
Maybe meeting Latynina had a bigger effect on him than he cares to admit. "Sometimes you see records and you say you want to get there and you can use it as motivation. So, in a way it's kinda cool to rewrite history, to be up there with some of the greats in Olympic history."
Thorpe, his only contemporary near rival for greatness, could not drag out the dream. Can Phelps? "I've always been a person who lets my swimming do all my talking," he says. "I've just jumped in the water and whoever's best prepared is going to win that race."
Simple. Although with Phelps, it's never simple.
Sunday Indo Sport