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By John Lohn
LONDON, August 3. THE week started oddly. Fans looked at each other with raised eyebrows. Members of the media were stunned. Other athletes didn't see it coming. Since it had been eight years since Michael Phelps lost an Olympic race and a dozen since he failed to medal, questions quickly arose. Is something wrong?
No, nothing was wrong. Phelps had a bad race in the 400 individual medley. It happens to big-time athletes. Even in his glory days, Tiger Woods didn't win every week. At the height of his career, Roger Federer never won the grand slam. On occasion, Justin Verlander will take the mound and get knocked around. And here and there, Kobe Bryant will have a dismal shooting night.
Even the greatest Olympian in history, a guy with 21 medals, can slip up. It didn't seem possible, such was the dominance he exhibited in Beijing, but it entirely was. Yes, Phelps was fourth in the 400 individual medley to start these Olympic Games. Yes, he didn't reach the podium for the first time since he was a 15-year-old kid in Sydney. But the measure of a true champion is in the way he responds, and as the final moments of his career tick away, Phelps is being Phelps.
The London Games will not go down as his finest Olympic showing. That distinction, of course, goes to Beijing and the 8-for-8 performance he unleashed. It's been stated here earlier this week, but is worth mentioning again. As time elapses, it becomes more apparent just how amazing the Phelps feat of 2008 really was.
Even after the 400 individual medley, Phelps was not perfect. Although he supplied the best split of his life on the 400 freestyle relay, the United States had to settle for the silver medal. Then another silver medal came in the 200 butterfly when Chad Le Clos ran down the guy he idolizes, clipping him at the wall. The finish, though? That's been vintage Phelps, and the way one finishes is what resonates in the years ahead.
There's an old clich? in sports which says athletes should try to go out on top, so they are remembered at their best and not for hanging on too long. A majority of the time, the athlete indeed begins to decline dramatically before walking away. Although Phelps isn't the version the world came to know four years ago, he's hardly doggy-paddling to the wall. Look no further than the last two nights for inarguable proof.
On Thursday night, the crowd of 17,000 at the London Aquatic Centre watched Phelps produce a wire-to-wire triumph over rival Ryan Lochte in the championship final of the 200 individual medley. It was gold medal No. 16 for Phelps, which was seven more than anyone else in history. The win, too, arrived in an event in which Lochte had established himself as the world-record holder, two-time reigning world champion and man to beat.
But Phelps took the air out of the race early, opening up a noticeable lead on the butterfly and backstroke legs before edging ahead even more on the breaststroke leg. He then held on during the freestyle leg to become the first man to win a swimming event at three consecutive Olympiads.
On Friday night, he shined again. Racing in the last individual event of his career, Phelps bested the field in the 100 butterfly, prevailing in 51.21, despite a shaky turn. Unlike 2004 and 2008, which required at-the-wall victories, Phelps pulled away in the later stages, but didn't need the final stroke to decide the outcome. By winning the 100 fly, Phelps became the first person to three-peat in two different events at the Olympics. History for Phelps? Ho-hum.
Come on. Did you really think he was going to stumble across the finish line? If so, you must have been hit by a case of amnesia, or not been a close follower of his exploits. Remember, this is the guy who wasn't satisfied with six gold medals in Athens, so he made it eight in Beijing. This is the guy who was called out during the tech-suit controversy of 2009 by Milorad Cavic, then beat him for the 100 fly title while wearing an inferior suit. This is the guy who came back after Beijing when he had nothing left to prove.
There was no way Phelps would need a life raft to the retirement shore. It just took him a little longer than usual to get going. But once the cylinders began to fire, Phelps was every bit the high-performance machine we've watched for years. Now, all that remains is a relay race, and Phelps can pull into the garage forever.
The two individual gold medals Phelps has won in the past two days will almost certainly be accompanied by a gold medal in the 400 medley relay tomorrow night. There is no sensible scenario which shows the United States falling behind a lineup of Matt Grevers, Brendan Hansen, Phelps and Nathan Adrian. Really, it's only fitting for Phelps to head into retirement with another gold medal.
The great ones rise to the occasion when they have to, and Phelps has fit that bill over the past couple of days. Sure, his final Olympic appearance got off to a rough start, Phelps looking like a sparkler in a Fourth of July fireworks spectacular. By the end, he was the grand finale, exploding brightly.
It couldn't be any other way.
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