LONDON – Michael Phelps stood behind the podium and leaned against the wall at the end of the Aquatics Centre, a faraway look in his eyes. He was about to receive his 20th Olympic medal of his career after winning the 200-meter individual medley in smashing fashion.
Inquiring media minds wanted to know what he was thinking. Was he reviewing the arc of his incomparable career? Relishing his revenge upon friendly rival Ryan Lochte after losing to him in the 400 IM five days earlier? Contemplating the meaning of life?
Turns out the thought process was much more practical than ethereal. Here's what was on Michael Phelps' mind: "This 100 is going to hurt."
As soon as he got his gold medal, listened to the "Star-Spangled Banner," and completed his victory lap with fellow medalists Lochte (silver) and Laszlo Cseh (bronze), he had more work to do. He shucked off his team sweatsuit and hustled away for the 100 butterfly semifinals.
"I was in a lot of pain," Phelps said. "My legs were hurting bad."
Despite that, he smoked the 100 'fly with the fastest qualifying time for finals, only .28 seconds off his own Olympic record.
On a night when people were lining up to knock Lochte for winning a lousy five medals in London, Phelps's performance amid a major muscle rebellion underscored an inconvenient truth for those who prefer black and white to gray: It's wrong to declare either of these ambitious men disappointments in these Olympics.
Lochte's meet is over with five medals: two gold, two silver, one bronze. (And now, look out, London. The Games' most eligible bachelor is ready to unwind and will celebrate his 28th birthday on Friday. The British tabs are on high alert.) Phelps now has two golds and two silvers, with two events yet to swim. Both men missed the podium in one individual event.
You want to knock either guy? Go ahead. It's ridiculous.
The medal hauls don't live up to what Phelps did in Beijing four years ago. Nor does it fulfill the wildest-dream-come-true list for either swimmer entering these Olympics. But at their advanced swimming ages (both 27) and with the world gaining on them, both were sufficiently fearless to embrace the challenge.
Failing to dominate every race is not a repudiation of either man. It is a reinforcement of their willingness to take on something absurdly difficult. To endure the endless preliminary and semifinal heats, the warm-ups and warm-downs, the ice baths, the massages, the lack of sleep – not to mention the concerted efforts by more rested competitors to take them down.
"Michael and Ryan are the only guys who have ever done that," said American men's head coach Gregg Troy, who also is Lochte's personal coach.
"The bar is set very high," said Bob Bowman, Phelps's coach.
And they're the ones who set it, by being so good at so many things for so long.
The vast majority of the swimming world is composed of specialists: a single stroke, or a penchant for distance or sprints. Very few swimmers are good enough to do a variety of strokes, and very few have the stamina to excel in multiple events against elite international competition.
A much smaller number still is both good enough to generalize, tough enough to go through the physical torment of six or more events in one Olympics, and special enough to hit the medals stand in all of them.
In American history, that number is three: Phelps, in both 2004 and '08; Matt Biondi in 1988; and Mark Spitz in 1972.
Now consider how many generalists have remained elite across three Olympiads. That number is two: Phelps and Lochte. They've both earned IM medals in 2004, '08 and '12.
After Phelps and Spitz, it can easily be argued that Lochte is the third-greatest American swimmer of all-time – and he's not done yet. Lochte, who now has won 11 medals, the second-most for any American male, said Thursday that he intends to train 2016 and compete in Rio de Janeiro.
Just trying to do such a thing once can chew up and spit out a lesser swimmer. Four years ago, Katie Hoff was billed as the Female Phelps, swimming six events. She staggered to one silver and two bronze, and hasn't been the same swimmer since. This time around, 17-year-old Missy Franklin is attempting a women's-record seven events – and she's doing fine, with four medals won, but she's also missed the podium twice.
Phelps wound up counseling her in the warm-down pool on Thursday, after Franklin's second double of the meet ended with an exhausted fifth place in the 100 freestyle. Lochte endured his own double on Thursday, finishing a surprising third in the 200 backstroke and then being beaten by Phelps in the 200 IM.
"It takes a lot of time to understand how stressful it is on your body," Phelps said. "It is tough to get up and race the best in the world in every single event."
Often over the years, racing the best in the world meant racing each other for Phelps and Lochte. In fact, if it weren't for each other, they'd have even more impressive collections of hardware.
Phelps would have had a bronze in the 400 IM to start this meet if Lochte weren't here. Lochte would have two more golds in 200 IMs where he finished runner-up to Phelps.
Yet both said on Thursday night how much they valued competing against each other.
"He is the toughest racer I've ever had to deal with," Lochte said of Phelps.
"Ryan is one of the toughest competitors I've ever swam against," Phelps said of Lochte.
Their toughness is unquestioned. Their ambition should not be criticized. Neither Michael Phelps nor Ryan Lochte has had a perfect London Olympics, but they haven't shied away from the challenge of trying to beat the world – and each other – as many times as possible.
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