In those core four American sports—your football, your baseball, your basketball, your hockey—I have never been around to watch one that the world would later refer to as the Greatest of All-Time. I was too young for Jordan and Gretzky by a few years, and Aaron, Montana, and Young by many, many more. The closest I’ve ever come to having even one of the one-time greats on a team of mine—where I could scream their name and mean every ounce of it too—was probably when I was six years old and watching Allen Iverson the NBA finals in my dad’s bedroom. I’ve had great teams—the 2008 Phillies for one, with Howard, Utley, Rollins, and Hamels leading the best team in any sport Philly’s seen since 1983—but never quite “the greatest.”
Except that’s actually a lie.
I have seen one.
It’s pretty obvious who this post is about—after all, his picture is sitting right above the title—but even still, every chapter of the legend (can I call it that? I’m calling it that) of Michael Phelps seems unreal. But before I can even begin to ramble about what he’s meant to me, I have to start with the Olympics.
The first Olympics I remember were the Summer Games of 2004, when they returned to Athens, the place where they began two thousand years before. As an eight year-old kid who even then loved stories, that seemed absolutely storybook, and I still remember the shivers I got watching that opening ceremony. Twelve years and six Olympics later, I still cannot look away when that torch springs to life. Summer or Winter, skiing or swimming or bobsledding or gymnastics, I will not miss the Olympics. In spite of all the problems inherent in their production, they are for me one of the purest forms of joy: an event dedicated to taking every single one of the world’s greatest athletes—no matter what (and sometimes, as we’ve seen this year, in open defiance of) the tragedies befalling their nations—and putting them together to show a global audience exactly what they can do. In our world overrun by cynicism and pessimism (however warranted it may be), the Olympics are one surefire fountain of optimism—of faith in human potential, and in our ability to do amazing things.
But I doubt I’d feel all of that, all the seemingly preconditioned joy and adrenaline that rushes through my body every time those two weeks roll around, without Michael Phelps.
Besides that opening ceremony in Athens, the one thing I remember from those, my first Olympics, was him, cutting through the water to his six gold medals and two bronzes. And that was just the opening act.
I was twelve years old for the Beijing Games in 2008—the perfect age to watch the greatest single athletic performance in the history of the Olympic Games. I was old enough to remember all the great moments, the anxiety and the joy of each sterling victory, but not quite old enough to have lost that childlike wonder that underlies the best of those old memories. I may now be a bit of a cynic, but twelve year-old me watched those games with unbridled excitement.
I remember waiting for that final race, the medley relay where Phelps was set to win his 8th, record-setting gold, so well that I remember how that afternoon I’d gone to play tennis with my parents, and how I’d forced myself to ignore all TVs (thank god this was before social media) to make sure I wasn’t spoiled for that picture-perfect ending. I remember the 100 fly just before, when he out-touched Milorad Cavic by one one-hundredth of a second to keep the dream alive. I remember, perhaps the best of all of them, the 4×100 freestyle relay, the only one he was supposed to lose, and how the French anchor swimmer trash-talked so much that he psyched himself into becoming the victim of Jason Lezak—anchor swimmer, team captain, and star of one of the greatest Olympics comebacks of all time. Phelps’s celebration after that race is legendary. Mine was pretty ridiculous too.
Then came London 2012, when I was sixteen years-old, about to embark on my junior year, and had become an irrepressible cynic. I didn’t think I’d watch those Summer Games. In my bones, I didn’t think they’d mean anything to me anymore, now that I had more “important” things to worry about.
Two things brought me back. Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, and the women’s gymnastics team, who still astound me every time they jump to defy the laws of physics. And Michael Phelps.
Of course, by his standards, those were a rough Olympics, and the years that followed were even rougher. Forget the six golds (how ridiculous does that sound), he’d taken silver his signature race—out-touched just like he’d done four years before—and after that, as NBC constantly reminds us these games, he couldn’t adapt to retirement, and his life flew a bit out of control. For a while, it seemed like he’d join the ranks of those great athletes who couldn’t adjust back to (shall we call it) civillian life.
But after seven Olympiads and sixteen years, I finally understand that that’s part of what makes the Olympics so compelling. They’re not just a sporting event. They’re a narrative, written by human determination.
Normally, in narratives, we root for the underdogs. We revel in the fall of the greatest. 2012’s Katie Ledecky, the scrappy upstart racing against the then-world record holder in the 800 free—she’s the one you root for. When Oleg Vernaiev challenged Kohei Uchimura—undeniably the greatest male gymnast of all time—for the all-around gold, I was rooting for the Ukranian to bring it home.
But it’s different when we’re talking about the Greatest of All Time staging quite possibly the greatest comeback of all time. Phelps is the old one now—31 years-old, the aged competitor, survivor of everything thrown his way, who just couldn’t pass up the opportunity for this one last race—the opportunity for something almost like redemption. He wasn’t his best in 2012—he openly admits that—but these Olympics it’s been obvious that something’s changed. He looks happier, more comfortable, freer than he ever did. Perhaps that’s because his fianceé and son are watching alongside his mom (as much perennial figure in every Olympic congregation as he is), a sign that there’s more to life than just that singular sport. Perhaps that’s because he’s gone there and back again: become so tough a competitor that swimming became nothing but a competition, but then, once his historic goal was finally achieved, learned to love it like a kid again. We may love the scrappy underdog, but we also love watching greatness go out on-top. In terms of redemptive, happy endings, it doesn’t get much better than the sight of Michael Phelps visibly overcome before and after every race, soaking in the moment.
Somehow, these Olympics have seemed even more incredible than his performance in 2008. The world knew he was the Greatest of All-Time, but no one was sure if he’d be the greatest this time. But he’s put on an astounding clinic, as, in their final performances, the truly greatest always do. I got chills watching the 4×100 free—Beijing’s most legendary race—when I saw him, unmistakable with that huge, loping stroke, slowly but surely pulling away from the competition. I got even more watching him reclaim the 200 fly—the only race he’s raced in every Olympics he’s been in, from when he placed 5th in Sydney to now—by four one-hundredths of a second. I almost laughed when he took the 200 individual-medley, separating from that field in a way that only the Greatest of All-Time could ever possibly do. And the 100 fly—his last individual race—did that thing the greatest endings always do: be inevitable but unexpected. In hindsight, he had to miss one, and that one went to Joseph Schooling, a 19 year-old Singaporean kid who’d met Phelps as a thirteen year-old, who’d looked up to him throughout his career. If there were ever a sign of Phelps’ impact on the world of his sport, that was it.
And then, not only did he take silver, but he took silver in the first three-way tie in Olympic history, together with his two perennial rivals—Chad Le Clos and László Cseh—creating an utterly amazing sight: the three greatest butterfly swimmers in Olympic history, holding hands on a podium with silver medals draped around their necks, all passing the torch to a young prodigy hearing his national anthem over those Olympic speakers for the first ever time. It was perhaps as poetic an ending as the world of sports has ever seen, measured to a hundredth of a second. I can still hardly believe it happened.
And now, the legend of Michael Phelps—a story in five parts, stretching to fill twenty years and five Summer Olympics—has officially come to a close. He swam in one final medley relay—the signature race for Team USA, one they’ve never lost in any Olympic Games—and he, Ryan Murphy, Cody Miller, and Nathan Adrian pulled it off in truly spectacular, Olympic-record-setting fashion. He leaves, undisputedly, the greatest Olympian of all-time, whether modern or Ancient Greek. He leaves as someone spritually free, happy and content with that achievement—a feat almost more difficult than everything he’s done in his quest for greatness. And he leaves, much less importantly for everyone but me, as the greatest single athlete that I have ever watched, an inspiration despite the fact that I might not have swam in an Olympic-sized pool since my Cornell swim test two autumns ago. It’s been hard as of late to have any faith in humanity. But these Olympics—with their myriad of champions, Simone Biles and Raisman, Simone Manuel, Katie Ledecky, Ryan Lochte, Nathan Adrian, Ryan Murphy and Lilly King, and most of all Michael Phelps—have come pretty close to bringing it back.
So even if it only lasts two weeks, that’s two weeks where I get to smile and laugh and cry and watch that legendary swimmer, the one I grew up watching whenever those Summer Games came around, prove once again to everyone in the world that he is the Greatest of All-Time. Thank you, athletes of Team USA. And thank you Michael Phelps for making me a lifelong fan of the Olympic Games, and for delivering these last resounding victories—for capping off your incredible, storybook narrative—even when it seemed like you shouldn’t have anything left to give.
No one could have written it better than that.