Michael Phelps' golden Olympic legacy
Back in 1972, Mark Spitz wowed the Olympic Games in Munich with his seven gold medals. Thirty six years later Michael Phelps says he wanted to surpass that feat.
Phelps’s idol Ian Thorpe – himself a multiple Olympic gold medallist - said it could not be done. But he was in the Water Cube in Beijing to see Phelps surpass Spitz and was fulsome in his praise for the 23-year-old.
“I'm really proud of him,” said the Australian. “Not just because he won eight golds. Rather, it's how much he has grown up and matured into a great human being. Never in my life have I been so happy to have been proved wrong. I enjoyed every moment of it."
The French have a word for career achievements – palmarès. It imbues success with an ancient aspect. And it is hardly surprising since its etymology streams from Latin concepts of grandeur. If anyone is worthy of the palm in Olympic terms then it is Michael Fred Phelps II.
He has won 18 gold, two silver and two bronze medals in Olympic Games since Athens in 2004. His Beijing bonanza of eight golds is unlikely to be repeated. But for all his individual brilliance in those games, three of the haul came in relays.
And if Phelps ever spawns, the first born should be named Jason - even if it is a girl - in honour of Jason Lezak who helped keep Phelps’s dream alive in Beijing.
Going into the 4x100m freestyle relay, Phelps was already one gold to the good and he swam a sterling first leg to set the US team up. But by the time Lezak took to the water for the anchor leg, he was half a body length behind France’s Alain Bernard, a man he had never beaten.
The French were preparing to crow but the next 47 seconds rewrote the internal chemistry of the games at the pool. Lezak reined in Bernard and touched home first.
Phelps’s scream of frenzied joy shaped his torso to reveal a hive of muscles. It was one of the salient images from the Beijing Games and the bellow was a resounding precursor to more glory.
And the 4x100m men’s freestyle race from then on was referred to as "the relay".
The French pipped the Americans to the 4x100m freestyle in London and Phelps lost the 200m butterfly by a fingertip - the same distance he’d won it by in Beijing.
“Going through everything I’ve gone through over the past week and feeling how I’ve felt shows that I was in the best shape of my life in 2008,” Phelps reflected.
“And for me to be able to do all that in 2008, then everything had to fall into the right place at the right time. I mean everything had to be perfect. And the results speak for themselves. Everything was perfect. And I ended up being at the right place at the right time.”
His decision to retire after the London games appears to be the right decision at the right time.
The intensity required to remain at the top seems almost inappropriate for a man approaching 30 who has won it all.
It might also taint his legacy.
As Phelps idolised Thorpe, so in his turn Phelps is revered among the swimmers.
Chad le Clos, who beat Phelps to the 200m butterfly in London, is unabashed in his adoration of the boy from Baltimore. And the American has reciprocated by anointing the 20-year-old South African as the next big thing. But Phelps is just as quick to point out that Le Clos will have to work to maintain his supremacy.
With such regal endorsement and a chance to go deep sea cage diving in South Africa with his hero on the horizon, Le Clos is unlikely to squander such patronage.
But what is a phenomenon to do to make sense of a life away fom the environment that’s furnished such respect and renown?
Firstly there seems to be a gastronomical objective.
“I’m looking forward to eating whatever I want whenever I want,” said Phelps. “But sadly with not working out as much you do have to watch your calorie intake because I saw myself blow up in 2008 after taking six months off. I’m going to try and stay active and try to stay in some kind of shape.”
There’s also the Michael Phelps Foundation charity which aims to promote the sport of swimming and a healthier lifestyle.
He might also watch the generation he’s helped to inspire. “I’m going to enjoy looking in at the young Americans," he said just after winning his 17th gold medal in London. "They’re going to fill our shoes easily. Missy Franklin is swimming 15 million events and Ryan Lochte is going to go on another four years. There are a lot of great people that will be fun to watch over the next four years.
“I’m quite keen to go to the next world championships to watch these guys compete and it will be interesting to see Chad over the next four years. It’s been great to race with him a couple of times.
"It’s something I’ve always wanted to do – see the sport from the other side and now I have my opportunity.”
Le Clos for his part has spoken about the void that will be left when Phelps is not at an international meeting.
But it is typical of the 'Baltimore Bullet' to regard his departure as a moment for others to emerge. As a boy Phelps suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Swimming was suggested as a way to channel his energies. A good diagnosis.