Sunday 18 March 2018

Phelps finally having fun as he seeks to cement his iconic status

'Phelps' body of work will stand for decades, perhaps longer, as the ultimate benchmark.' Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty
'Phelps' body of work will stand for decades, perhaps longer, as the ultimate benchmark.' Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty

Oliver Brown

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 three-month-old son, Boomer, will be at the pool today for his first race- 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 now."

A factor in this mellowing is Phelps' 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 hometown 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' pre-eminence in the Olympic pantheon, but this is one: should he prevail as expected in the final of the 200m 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 Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina were unquestioned greats, but even with nine golds apiece they are not even in the same equation as Phelps (right). His body of work will stand for decades, perhaps longer, as the ultimate benchmark.

The caveat, of course, 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 of its practitioners four years of monkish self-sacrifice, you are limited to one.

The pool, by contrast, offers a multiplicity of stroke styles and relays that enables the very best swimmers to plunder an embarrassment of individual riches.

Nobody should underestimate, though, how fiendishly difficult it is to translate the aspiration into reality. Ryan Lochte, Phelps' 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 two. Missy Franklin, likewise, threw herself into seven races four years ago, winning four. Phelps' eight from eight at Beijing 2008 will come to be regarded as a high-water mark of this or any generation.

In Rio, Phelps is restricting the fruits of his gold-rush to a more modest six. On this occasion, we should temper expectations of a 100pc conversion rate: in the 200m butterfly, he is likely to lose out either to Chad le Clos or Lazslo Cseh, while 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 an unexpected novelty. His demeanour so far would suggest is making good on that promise. There are few occasions when the most garlanded Olympian in history can claim to be star-struck by another athlete, but a chance encounter in the athletes' village with Novak Djokovic is one.

"A lot of athletes I am in awe of, and he is definitely one of them," Phelps said. "I passed him walking down the street and I thought, 'That's Djokovic - I want a picture'."

Phelps declares 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 Phelps argues that improved harmony between father and son has had a "huge" effect upon his happiness.

"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. Plus, he is going to have some cool outfits on. Boomer will be dressed to impress in the stands, that's for sure." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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