RIO DE JANEIRO – Immersed in deafening Brazilian bedlam and trying to summon a dormant brilliance, Michael Phelps stood on the starting block and experienced a percussive adrenaline surge.
“When I was on the block I thought my heart was going to explode out of my chest,” Phelps said. “I was so hyped tonight, so excited.”
Amid a boiling sensory cauldron, he was about to produce one of his greatest swimming moments. Which is a hell of a thing to even consider.
You might think, after winning a record 22 Olympic medals, a record 18 of which are gold, that this 400-meter freestyle relay would be business as usual. But the circumstances were highly unusual – he was on an underdog American relay, trying to help end a seven-year international losing streak in the event, and even the greatest of all swimmers’ place on this quartet was up for debate.
Could a guy who had tried to quit the sport twice, who hadn’t turned in a vintage Phelps swim in a year, who is a well-worn 31 years of age in a younger man’s sport – could that guy once again conjure magic when his country needed him to?
Phelps was the second man in the water for the American relay team, following teenager Caeleb Dressel. After an explosive start, the Olympic rookie showed some nerves by taking his 100-meter leg out too fast. He was overtaken in the final strokes by French leadoff man Mehdy Metella, who got to the wall two hundredths of a second before Dressel.
But Phelps timed his start to a razor’s edge – a risky margin, actually. His reaction time leaving the block was .08 seconds, very nearly within range of a false start that would have disqualified the relay.
Away legally, if only barely, Phelps entered the water ahead of France’s Fabien Gilot. He surfaced with an even larger lead. And when he reached the wall after 50 meters to flip and come back, Michael Phelps produced the turn that broke the world’s back.
“Probably the best turn that’s ever been done underwater,” said Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman. “That was a serious turn.”
Bowman, who is also the U.S. men’s team head coach, was not talking about Phelps’ best turn. He was talking about anybody’s best turn.
It was that good. That devastating.
Phelps uncorked a furious series of dolphin kicks off the wall that essentially ended the race, even with 250 meters to go. He destroyed Gilot to his right, and eliminated the hopes of the Russians and Australians to his left. He emerged with a commanding lead that only grew as he churned for home.
“My kick-out was great,” Phelps said. “I just wanted to hammer it.”
American hammer met international nail. When Phelps surfaced and the Olympic Aquatics Stadium crowd roared anew, America had its first 400 free relay gold since the 2009 World Championships. Phelps swam his leg in 47.12 seconds – the fastest 100 meters of his life, right on time.
Rookie third leg Ryan Held conquered nerves and held serve, and veteran anchor Nathan Adrian brought it home. An American team some thought might not make the podium won gold by .61 seconds over defending Olympic champion France, and 1.45 over pre-race favorite Australia.
“It felt good to have my last 400 free relay end with this around my neck,” Phelps said, gold medal laying against his chest. “We got it back.”
The disappearance of American dominance in the event had devolved from puzzling to demoralizing to outright embarrassing. Rock bottom came last summer at the World Championships in Kazan, Russia, when the U.S. somehow failed to make the eight-team final.
Of course, one considerable reason for that was the disciplinary suspension Phelps was serving for USA Swimming after his second DUI arrest, in late 2014. That kept Phelps off the Worlds team, which stung him deeply.
When I sat down with Phelps in January and asked how much he could have helped the U.S. contingent at that meet, he smiled and said tartly, “We might have made the free relay final.”
Yeah, maybe. But after a classic Phelps-ian, I’ll-show-you display of greatness at U.S. Nationals last August while the Worlds meet was going on, that form had gone missing.
He was solid throughout the winter, but not spectacular. The U.S. Olympic Trials this summer were more of the same. Phelps was good enough to make the team in three events, the 100 and 200 butterfly and 200 individual medley, but his times, while shaved and rested, did not guarantee he would hit the high notes against the world here in Rio.
So Bowman and Phelps went back to work at Team USA’s training camp – tinkering and fine-tuning and trying to rediscover the guy who was throwback-great last year. Gradually, over the course of training in San Antonio and then Atlanta, he was found.
“Everything I’ve asked him to do, he’s been good at,” Bowman said. “Better than before Trials.”
One of the things Bowman asked – OK, required – of Phelps was to swim a pair of relay time trials. They were timed scrimmages, basically, designed to see where Phelps stood against other 400 free relay aspirants.
They were important, because Phelps had not earned his way onto the relay in an individual 100 at Trials. He didn’t swim it, and he hadn’t swam a fast 100 all year, so he was on the outside looking in at that point.
One of the allures of swimming is that it is a ruthless meritocracy – the clock rules. You are your time. Fastest swimmers get the spoils, without allegations of coaching favoritism or bad officiating or crooked judging.
Coaches don’t make many playing-time decisions. Except with relays. And setting this relay lineup would be a complicated task.
Some other team members might have balked at opening up the relay selection to time-trial results. But Michael Phelps is Michael Phelps, and the American track record in that race was woeful, and Bowman was going to exhaust all avenues in an attempt to do better.
“Our only goal was to win a gold medal,” Bowman said. “Not to be politically correct or follow the rules, but to win.”
At Georgia Tech’s pool during camp, Phelps showed he was ready to win by throwing down a 48.3-second 100 leading off the time trial. That ended any debate – he would be one of the seven called upon in Rio.
“We had to give him that chance,” Bowman said.
And that chance would come in the Sunday night finals, not the Sunday morning preliminaries. The morning team of Jimmy Feigen, Held, Blake Pieroni and Anthony Ervin did its part by qualifying the Americans second – then three of them were replaced.
Pieroni and Feigen were understandably swapped out. The hard decision was between the 35-year-old Olympic veteran Ervin and 21-year-old Held, a North Carolina State swimmer who had never even been on an American national or junior-national team before this summer.
Bowman presciently went with Held, telling him about 30 minutes after the prelim swim.
“I kept my composure at first,” Held recalled. “I said, ‘OK, it’s go time.’ Then about five minutes later I called my mom bawling.”
It would not be his last tears of the day. Both he and Dressel broke down after the race – Held weeping on the medals podium and Dressel while the quartet toured the pool deck for photo ops with their medals.
Phelps, who has heard the “Star-Spangled Banner” so many times in Olympic medal ceremonies, smiled and hugged them both.
“I kind of told them, ‘It’s OK to sing and it’s OK to cry,’ ” Phelps said. “It’s good to see the emotion from the young guys.”
There was even some emotion from the old guy. He got a bit teary-eyed as he surveyed the stands full of admirers – a group that included his fiancée, Nicole Johnson, and their infant son, Boomer, oblivious in a stars-and-stripes snuggie.
Phelps soaked in the scene as if it were new. But when he went under the stands to answer a few questions from the media, he made a capitulation to age and wisdom: He sank to his knees on a podium.
Staying off his feet will be a critical part of staying rested for the rigors to come, which start with two rounds of the 200 butterfly Monday. Recovery is the hardest part now, so precautions must be made.
But what Michael Phelps showed in the pool Sunday night should make his competition very afraid. He just may have turned back the clock one last time, and summoned that missing dominance.
“Fastest 100 free I’ve ever gone in my career,” he said, eyes twinkling. “I have to think that’s a good sign.”
It’s a sign of still more greatness to come. From the greatest of all time.