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RIO DE JANEIRO – He doesn’t have to retire, you know.
The only person making Michael Phelps hang it up is Michael Phelps. And Michael Phelps has been known to change his mind.
He insists he’s done. Has said that steadfastly. And this time, unlike the last two times he retired, there is something meaningful for him to do outside the pool – namely raise his infant son, Boomer.
“I just don’t see it happening,” said his forever coach, Bob Bowman. “He’s in such a good place personally. And it’s time – other people need to step up.”
(That last thought was the voice of the U.S. men’s Olympic team. Not necessarily the voice of Phelps’ coach. Bowman is both of those things.)
He probably will retire and stay retired this time. But it’s purely his choice, not a matter of being too old to compete.
The rest of the best in the world can’t chase him out of the pool. Even as an aquatic geriatric, Phelps remains the greatest male swimmer on the planet by a laughably large margin.
This clearly isn’t Peyton Manning at the end, trying to get by on wits and guile and his defensive teammates. It isn’t Michael Jordan stubbornly trying to rekindle lost magic with the Washington Wizards. It’s a guy who is swimming like this is Beijing all over again.
He was the world’s best in 2004. And 2008. And even in 2012, while faking it. And as crazy as it is to comprehend, he’s still the best in 2016.
He has four gold medals in this Rio Revival to prove his dominance. With two more possibly on the way.
Phelps is so far superior that he absolutely beat down the field in the 200-meter individual medley Thursday night. He crushed six men who have recorded world Top 10 times in 2016. This was a quality field, and he decimated it.
Phelps toyed with the second-best male swimmer of the 21st century, Ryan Lochte. He left 400 IM champion Kosuke Hagino flailing in futile pursuit and finishing nearly a full two seconds behind Phelps to claim silver. He dismissed the fevered challenge of national hero Thiago Pereira, the best the Brazilians have to offer in the water, who inspired raucous cheers before the race from the home fans.
Fully energized, Pereira shot out to the lead after the butterfly leg. Lochte nudged barely ahead at the halfway point, after the backstroke. But Phelps was right there with them, and only one man would survive the stout early pace.
Lochte cracked, faded and finished fifth. Pereira withered even more dramatically, finishing seventh. Hagino of Japan and Wang Shun of China, never in contention when it mattered, picked up the pieces of the disintegrating race to grab medals, far in arrears of the GOAT.
It was flat silly.
The most impressive part of the race was Phelps breaking everyone’s will on the breaststroke leg. It’s his worst stroke.
“I think he surprised them a little bit,” Bowman said.
Afterward, Phelps surprised his coach a little bit by tearing up on the medal stand. The emotion is understandable during this farewell meet, but the timing made it remarkable.
Phelps had to swim a 100 butterfly semifinal just minutes after they hung the medal around his neck. And yet there he was with his chin quivering and eyes welling up, as if it were his first gold medal and not his twenty-freaking-second.
“That’s the first time he’s done that,” Bowman said. “I’ve always told him [when he has another event to swim after a medal ceremony], ‘Build the fire up in you during the national anthem.’ He’s like a machine, usually. But I liked to see it.”
Here’s why it was great to see: it’s further proof that Phelps is living in this very special moment. Phelps did his time in recovery after his second DUI in 2014, and that’s a key tenet of most recovery programs – stay present and be honest with your emotions.
Phelps let his emotions be shown Thursday night. Even with scant time to spare, he was fully present on that podium – not stressing about the 100 fly to come, but soaking in something that quite frankly seems to have awed even the man making it happen.
When this last comeback began, Phelps was so far from this kind of performance. He weighed more than he ever had, and his conditioning had evaporated. The process of pushing himself hard enough to regain near-peak form is what has made this a “very, very special week so far,” he said.
“It wasn’t going to be an easy process and I had to force myself through the pain I really didn’t want to feel,” he said. “But … I had to do it.
“Before, I was always looking for shortcuts. ‘Maybe I can skip a week here or there and still get by.’ Or, ‘I can skip that butterfly set.’ I kind of went through some obstacles I hadn’t before, but I had to do it.”
He put in the work. Simple as that. It took more work than ever before, because things don’t come as easy at 30 as they did at 20, but he did it.
The rewards are in the beatings he is now administering. Phelps slapped down South African Chad Le Clos earlier this week in the 200 butterfly to reclaim the title he’d lost to him in London four years ago. Thursday he reasserted his mastery of Lochte, in the meantime becoming the first Olympic swimmer ever to win the same event four straight times.
And that butterfly leg he had to turn around and swim just more than 30 minutes after the IM? That was fine, too. He’s qualified for the finals, and not a single living being is picking against him.
Still, it isn’t easy pushing his 31-year-old body through a double like that. Phelps exited the pool after that semi like Jim Brown getting up after being tackled. Slowly, gingerly – like he may never be right again.
Brown would return to the huddle and then trample everyone on the next play. Phelps will return to the pool Friday and likely do the same.
“It may be a little bit harder [to get out of the pool],” the GOAT said. “It may take a little longer. But it’s just as sweet standing on top of the podium hearing the national anthem play.”
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