Phelps: A career that inspired a generation

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The National, Monday 06th August, 2012

One by one, his rivals formed a handshake line behind the blocks at London Aquatics Centre and paid homage to Michael Phelps, the lord of the Olympic rings.
In his finale on Saturday night, as a member of the United States men’s 4x100m medley relay, Phelps collected his 22nd medal, and 18th gold.
Before Phelps retired, he had one last trophy to collect: a sta­tuette that recognised his place in Olympic history and resembled a crinkled piece of aluminium foil from a foot-long sandwich.
“It’s kind of weird looking at this and seeing ‘Greatest Olympian of All Time’, ” Phelps said, adding: “I finished my career the way I wanted to. I think that’s pretty cool.”
It sounds ludicrous now, but when Phelps, now 27, began his journey toward becoming the Tiger Woods of swimming, he had no clue what Mark Spitz had done.
Unlike Woods – who kept a tally, like a to-do list, that included Jack Nicklaus’ feats – Phelps was looking to the future when he put together the most ambitious Olympic programme in the history of his sport.
Before becoming the first swimmer to race in eight Olympic events at the 2004 Games, Phelps was fuzzy on the details of Spitz’s career.
It was left to his coach, Bob Bowman, to fill him in on Spitz’s seven-gold-medal performance at the 1972 Summer Olympics.
Similarly, Phelps said that until recently, he did not know about the gymnast Larisa Latynina, who reigned for nearly five decades as the most decorated Olympian, with 18 medals.
Some architects of history work from a blueprint, while others, like Phelps, do not want to acknowledge any ceiling.
Phelps transformed swimming, inspiring a generation at home and abroad, by building an audacious programme out of grit, guts and a burning desire to make swimming cool for children all over the world.
“I wanted to change the sport and take it to another level,” Phelps said.
Mission accomplished.
On Saturday, Phelps followed Matt Grevers and Brendan Hansen in the medley relay, and 50.73 seconds later, he gave the anchor, Nathan Adrian, a lead that Adrian turned into a runaway victory over Japan and Australia.
The drama was in the details: the two cameras set up on either side of Phelps as he stepped to the blocks for his butterfly leg; the hugs with his teammates after the race; the tear-stained face of his mother, who stood with all the other fans applauding; and this conversation at the warm-up pool before the race, with Bowman, the Sherpa who took him to the sporting summit: “My tears are hidden behind goggles,” Phelps told him. “Yours are streaming down your face.”
Phelps’ 22 medals are a mind-boggling total. If he were a country, he would rank in the top 60 in modern Olympic history. His 18 golds would put him No 36, just ahead of Argentina.
The monarchy of Michael has loyal subjects far and wide, from Missy Franklin outside Denver to Chad Le Clos of Durban, South Africa.
Franklin, 17, who competed in seven events here, the most ever by a female Olympic swimmer, owes her ambition to Phelps, who made such a workload seem not only feasible but fun.
“He has done a world of difference for swimming,” Franklin said. “He has really brought swimming onto the scene and gotten so many more people involved.
“Just what he’s done is incredible, and he’s kind of made people rethink the impossible – rethink what they can do and how they can push themselves.
“I don’t think his shoes will ever be filled. I think his footsteps are huge. Hopefully, I can make little paths next to his.”
Le Clos, 20, said he watched Phelps win six golds and two bronzes at the Athens Olympics and was inspired to become a champion swimmer.
It was not a coincidence that Le Clos swam six events in London, including the same four individual ones as Phelps.
After watching Phelps win a record eight golds in Beijing, Le Clos added more events to his programme.
On Tuesday, he pulled off a monumental upset when he handed Phelps his first major international defeat in 10 years in the 200m butterfly.
“That’s why I was so emotional afterwards,” Le Clos said. “He was the reason I swam the butterfly. It’s not a joke. If you think about it, it’s kind of crazy.
“That’s why I swim the 200m freestyle, both the IMs. I don’t swim it for any other reason than just because Michael does.”
Phelps got choked up when he heard that he was Le Clos’ hero and role model, Bowman said.
“It means Michael’s done what he wanted to do: affect the sport of swimming.”
During the meet, Bowman said, a coach from another country approached him and said his swimmers had more of a public following because Phelps, made the sport more attractive to better athletes.