That is exactly what happened.
We already knew Phelps's freestyle is on form. For all that he's accomplished, his leg on the Men's 4 x 100 Freestyle relay might actually be his best swim of this Olympic Games. Freestyle is not Phelps's best stroke, nor is he a particularly dominant sprinter, but he laid down the law in that relay, giving Team USA the edge it needed to win gold. We saw him anchor the 4 x 200 Free relay and win gold as well, and we saw him gut out an obviously painful 200 Fly to win gold, so we knew he had the stamina to bring home a 200 IM with his best stuff.
Phelps's best stuff is and always has been extraordinary. It was again last night. He came off the last wall with the same intensity he found in the 4 x 100 Free relay, establishing a bodylength lead to which he would only add.
Vintage Phelps. He really is the greatest of all time.
He came back in the 100 Fly semifinals and pulled himself together enough to squeak his way into the finals with a :51.58. The way's he's been sprinting, I'll be truly astonished if he doesn't drop a full second from that qualifying time when he's got fresh legs.
Still, I find myself wondering what's next for Michael Phelps. That he's a mess out of the pool has been well-documented. He seems to have found some peace with his fiance and his son, and he's certainly been training hard, but he closed an interview last night with a terse note, saying something like, "My conception of myself doesn't make a lot of sense without swimming."
I wrote something similar in my memoir just yesterday, so I get it. But I also know that life has to go on after competition, that eventually, in the fictitious words of Rocky Balboa, "Time is undefeated."
Phelps might go to the 2020 Olympics and win gold in the 100 Fly and a few of the relays. He may even reinvent himself as something of a mid-distance specialist and put in a 200 Free or 200 IM that medals. Still, it seems impossible that he'll be the same swimmer at 35 that he is now at 31, and even now, we can already see reduced recovery times taking their toll. That 200 IM / 100 Fly double that he did last night is the kind of thing that every college swimmer does as a matter of course, that Phelps himself did in Beijing repeatedly without flaw.
He still has greatness, but for the first time, we can also see his humanity. He is without doubt coming to the end of his career, one way or another. What next?
I'll tell you what I'd like to see.
Phelps is from Baltimore, a city that is even now struggling to find its identity. I think we can safely assume that he lives in the tony part of town, that he rubs elbows with the city's upper class. He dominates a sport that is, I'm sorry to say, still undoubtedly lily-white, that remains socioeconomically unavailable to a large portion of the American population. It's my least favorite thing about swimming--by a lot.
Michael Phelps gets emotional but keeps winning golds as his legendary career winds down https://t.co/6f1GrmWMjP— ESPN Olympics (@ESPNOlympics) August 12, 2016
Phelps could change that. He already owns a pool. With his help, his city could sponsor programs to get its inner-city youth into pools, learning to swim, and even competing where there's interest. He could spark a renaissance of African-American swimming that would change the face of both the sport he loves and the city he calls home.
Speaking personally, I would start by trying to build a summer swim league along the lines of the Northern Virginia Swim League (NVSL). That's where I started. It was a low-commitment affair. We swam through the summer, and when I showed a little promise, my folks moved me into a year-round program. With the right support, this kind of program could change Baltimore forever, giving an entirely new generation of kids a chance to compete in the pool. We've seen programs like this in New York that have put a new generation of city kids into Fencing, and some of them are now Olympic medalists. Phelps could build the same in Baltimore, and it could change everything.
Phelps is a hands-on guy; he should let the city use his name, donate to the program, and even give motivational speeches to push his vision forward. But what he really needs to do is teach, hands-on. He's a swimmer. He needs to be a swimmer. But he also needs to inspire swimmers, actively, as a part of who he is.
It's clear that Michael Phelps needs swimming. I take no issue with that. The question is, how does he use his greatness in his chosen sport to lift his community once his competitive career is over? Dude is going to have to look himself in the mirror every day one way or another. He needs to find value in a new conception of himself, and he needs that pretty soon.