Commentary

Michael Phelps, slower, better icon

In fourth Olympics, he's slightly less competitive but more honest

Updated: August 1, 2012, 5:54 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

Four years ago at the Beijing Olympics, Michael Phelps was the sort of Olympic hero Americans love -- the ascendant legend who called his shot and delivered perfection, the admirable freak of nature being applauded for expanding the limit of human performance in mind-bending ways.

But now that he's back for more -- just in one less event, and as less of a sure thing for the American team -- the hagiography about Michael Phelps becoming the Greatest Olympian Ever is being accompanied by a less flattering storyline that's been late developing, and a bit unfair and venial, at that. Now he's Michael Phelps, the sometime "slacker"? The swimmer who overstayed the party and frittered more golden opportunities away?

[+] EnlargeMichael Phelps
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty ImagesMichael Phelps is also in contention for a medal in the 200 meter individual medley.

Even as he was on his way to compiling the most Olympic medals of all time with his 18th and 19th in his races on Tuesday night, Phelps was being treated as if he got too happy and lazy in the wait for the London Games because he took more time off in the past four years than he did when he was on his 2008 quest to break Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in one Olympics. And you know what the beautiful thing is? Phelps refuses to apologize for it.

He's been told he's sentenced himself to a life of regrets because he's losing gold medals now by the same hundredths-of-a-second margins that he used to win them, and people don't seem to believe him when he calmly disagrees. He's even been tweaked for relative trifles like looking goofy and disheveled in his mug shot for his Olympic credential (which revived jokes about how he had to apologize for being photographed with a bong a few years ago). And when he laughed and admitted the photo did make him look ridiculous -- adding that anything he pulls off in this fourth trip of his to the Games will just be more "toppings on the sundae" -- he was criticized for that, too. He was accused of being arrogant.

But you know what? I actually like this Michael Phelps just as much as, if not more than, the one who made swimming the appointment-viewing sport of the Beijing Games. That Phelps had the athletic arrogance and guts to declare he would try to take down Spitz, one of the most mythic figures in all of Olympic history, not just swimming, and what Phelps delivered was a mesmerizing 8-for-8 gold-medal run that will only grow more amazing with the re-telling over the years. This version of Phelps stuck his neck out in a different way. He's less obsessed with chasing glory but what he's doing says just as much -- if not more -- about an athlete's true heart.

Remember, Phelps had far, far more to lose than gain by not giving into the romantic notion of walking away on top of the world in 2008. Walking away after Beijing was the safe and, yes, most self-involved thing to do for this often self-involved man who just said the other day, "I'm not the easiest guy to coach." Phelps could have assured that his legacy remained pristine. He'd have forever remained Phelps the Unbeatable, the bulletproof new Colossus of his sport. But by coming back for London while confessing he didn't have the same monomaniacal devotion anymore, Phelps chose a riskier path instead: the superhuman swimmer who insisted on being human, come what may.

Phelps is at a juncture now that a lot of athletes find themselves at late in their careers. He's competing to exhaust his love for the sport as much as he is for medals he's still piling up.

That's the bargain Phelps struck with himself when he decided to put himself through what it took to come back for London. And now that he's here, he's sticking to it.

It's as if Phelps swam for everyone else at the first three Olympics. But this Olympics -- this one's for him.

Phelps doesn't say that approaching things this way might have been the only way he could have made it back at all. But you can read that between the lines. And it hardly makes him a disgrace. Swimming is full of greats who at some point in their career fought flickering resolve or took time off to combat burnout, including the great Spitz himself.

Let's not forget, the reduction in Phelps' blast-furnace intensity is a matter of degree, of course. It's been as miniscule as the split-second margins he's missing gold medals by. But it's there, all right, and there's a lot to like about the way Phelps has been brutally honest about accepting the consequences. He's not sugarcoating how much his lack of fine-tuning cost him at these London Games. "I think it's obvious," he said.

[+] EnlargeMichael Phelps
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesMichael Phelps celebrates after the 4x200 freestyle relay.

He was out-touched at the wall Tuesday by a mere five-hundredths of a second in the 200 butterfly, his signature event which he led from the opening lap and hadn't lost in 11 years. He began the Olympics by not winning a medal in the 400 IM at all, which some critics celebrated as his comeuppance. His response?

"When I made my decisions," Phelps said of his preparations, "I knew this could happen."

When Phelps made that remark on Tuesday night he still had three races left in his Olympic career, counting Thursday's 200 IM final, and he also made it clear he's allowing himself this one last extravagance: He wants to enjoy every last one of them, not just win all three. He even kept using the F-word: "Fun." He knows he's simultaneously undergoing a coronation in London and yet he's acutely aware he's the sports version of Tom Sawyer, the boy in the balcony watching his own funeral play out.

There should be no debate that Phelps is the greatest winner the Games has ever seen, even if he refuses to wade into it himself. He's been better than the amazing Carl Lewis, and a more prolific winner than Jesse Owens. But what Phelps seems to be dwelling on right here and now isn't his place in history. He's still got racing to do, and he's trying to consciously soak everything in before he says goodbye.

On Tuesday night, Phelps admitted he couldn't sing the national anthem with the rest of the gold-medal 4x200 meter freestyle relay team because he was afraid he'd burst into tears. He was so irritated at himself for being out-touched at the wall in the 200 fly, he tossed his swimming cap into the water in disgust. But it didn't take very long for perspective to creep back in. There's a difference between "failing" and honestly getting beat. The same teammates who used to gripe behind his back spoke of how they'd never admired him more, the way he swam on heart and fumes though he's clearly no longer at his best.

One of the things that helped Phelps himself get over it was the joy on the face of Chad le Clos, the young South African who'd just upset him. Before long, there was Phelps showing the kid how to pose with a gold medal on the podium so that the medal wouldn't be outside the frame of all the photos. Later, before anchoring the 4x200 relay, there was Phelps making a point to huddle up teammates, including his closest American rival, Ryan Lochte, and thank them all ahead of time for helping him get to the threshold of making more history.

Since when did swimming's Mr. Big Shot cry or say thank you or drop his racer's edge and allow himself to show such vulnerability?

Never. That's when.

It was always clear that Phelps was going to be swimming in London against the ghost of Michael Phelps as much as Lochte or whatever new wonders that emerged. Yet he came anyway. Phelps seems to welcome finally having the chance to raise his gaze beyond the black line at the bottom of the pool and out toward the rest of his life. If anything, he's heading toward what's next with the same insistence he used to pour only into swimming. And there's a lot to like about all of that, too. Because there's something pure and, yes, quintessentially Olympian about it.

Phelps used to only race to win. Now he wins by merely racing.

That's a pretty neat trick for the Best Olympian Ever to pull off. He's on a highly personal quest in London even if it is playing out in public. And it's not an easy or natural recalibration for a once-indomitable champion and remorseless competitor to make.

Phelps' greatest success at these London Games -- no matter what happens the rest of the way -- is he genuinely has kept that bargain he made with himself months ago, when he allowed himself to cut some little corners in training.

He's no longer exclusively judging himself by tyranny of stopwatch, for a change. And here's the loveliest part about that: Michael Phelps is still racing under exacting standards, all right. But this time around, only his own.

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