Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Leaving London Series: Michael Phelps

I actually have written this piece a few times, and each time I look back at it I think... that's not exactly what I want to communicate.

There is no possible way to hyperbolically state how Michael Phelps has proven himself to be the greatest swimmer in the history of this big blue marble called Earth.  Over 4 Olympiads, 3 in which he has won medals, Phelps has won more medals then most countries will win over the next 100 years...

From being introduced to the world in 2000 as a young 15 year old, finishing 5th and the message being left to the World was that we would be hearing much more from this young man from Baltimore.

In 2001 Phelps came of age and inserted himself into the discussion as the greatest swimmer on Earth in the class of the great Ian Thorpe.  Into 2004, Phelps at just 19 years old wins 8 medals (6 Gold, 2 Bronze) and many are left snidely remarking "Mark Spitz was better".  Phelps was good, really good... but he didn't win the 200FR against Thorpe and Pieter vanden Hoogenband... how ridiculous but in a sports watching community that were uneducated in the sport, it was the unfair perception.

2008... 8 Gold.  An incredible 8 days in China.  The assist from the greatest relay split in the history of the sport from Jason Lezak, the out-dueling of Milorad Cavic, and the legacy was established.

The curtain call, 2012... 4 Gold and 2 Silver and an odd 4th place finish that had everyone in doubt on Day 1 of the Olympics as to whether Phelps still had "it".  The shocking second place finish to Chad le Close of South Africa in the event Phelps had dominated for the previous 11 years, the 200FL added to the skepticism as to whether Phelps was still the Phelps everyone remembered.  All that non-sense doubt was put to rest when Phelps became the 3rd swimmer in Olympic history to win back-to-back-to-back Gold medals in an Olympic event by taking the 200IM in dominating fashion in his last clash with Ryan Lochte.  Phelps joined Australia's Dawn Fraser (100FR 1956-1960-1964) and Hungary's Krisztina Egerszegi (200BK 1988-1992-1996) as the only 3-peat winners.  Then for good measure, Phelps added another 3-peat in the 100FL before the meet was over.  The Baltimore Bullet was not as much of a sure thing in 2012 as he was in 2008, but he was still the Best in the World.

Phelps & his 100m Fly Gold... watch out for the guy in the background...

The most trite and unfortunate question now becomes.... now what?

Phelps owes no more to the sport.  He's raised the profile of swimming in the public consciousness. Phelps could ride into the sunset and never be heard from again and that would be perfectly fine.  He doesn't need to go to Hollywood and do something silly like start in a re-boot of Tarzan.  What could possibly be next?

I don't know Mr. Phelps but if I were advising him...

Make your appearances, endorse some products, cash in on the earning potential you've built over the last 12 years.  Get in there and make your money and insist your retirement.

Then... in late 2013/early 2014... start training again.  1 event.  The 100FL.  Take the incomparable run at being the first 4-peat winner of an event at the Olympic games.  The story is too big, Phelps will still be just 31 years old, he would be the biggest story in the history of the sport.

The fall out?  Either Phelps completes the comeback, wins again and potentially runs his Gold medal record to 19 or 20 (medley relay), becomes the first time 4-peat swimmer a feat that might take generations to come close to matching.  Or... should Phelps fall short of Olympic Gold, he would create another star in the sport.  Just as when Chad le Clos took down Phelps in the 200FL and instantly became an "the guy who beat Phelps" it's arguable that whoever could deny Phelps a quest for a 4-peat (and it could quite conceivably be le Clos) would become the talk of the 2016 Olympics.

All that said... Mr. Phelps... you owe us (the swimming community and fans) nothing.  But it would be a spectacle beyond all other spectacles to give it 1 last shot and given your age and ability it's a possibility that will be talked about until the final moment that it does or doesn't happen.

Thank you Michael.