RIO DE JANEIRO — So much is different now for Michael Phelps. He is an old man in swimming years, with a body tattooed in cupping circles and worn down by nearly two decades of endless laps in long, blue pools from Baltimore to Phoenix. And: “By everything that’s happened since London,” said his longtime coach Bob Bowman, a reference that did not need further explanation. Phelps’s mother watches from the stands, as evermore, but so does his infant son, mortality facing him down from above and below on the generational ladder. The other swimmers in his races range from just a little younger to so much younger that they weren’t in school yet when Phelps first swam an Olympic race.
So much is familiar, too. The way he puts his right foot up on the starting block and his left on a towel as he awaits the call to his mark. The two slaps on his back just before lowering his hands and awaiting the block. The way he navigates an endless succession of races, appearing in the afternoon and then again at night as if the pool is a theater on a Saturday and he is Hamilton. Maybe most of all, the way he adjusts the ribbon on a gold medal so that it lies perfectly flat against his neck on the victory stand, because who else on earth would know how to do this quite so well?
He did this for the 20th and 21st time in his life Tuesday night at the Rio Olympic Aquatics Stadium, first winning the 200-meter butterfly and then 71 minutes later the 4x200-meter freestyle relay, each for the third time in his career. In addition to his 21 gold medals, Phelps has four others, a total of 25 that could grow by three more at these Games. Exhausted and mellow to the point that it seemed he might nod off in a press conference more than 90 minutes after the race, Phelps said, “I was talking to Bob [Bowman] the other night. We’ve won a lot of medals. It’s just insane. It’s mind-blowing.”
It is fitting that his first individual medal of his fifth Olympics came in the 200-meter butterfly. It was the event that came first for Phelps. It is where the skinny, 15-year-old boy with the big feet and big ears began fulfilling the promise that Bowman made to Phelps’s parents when he convinced them that their son could be an Olympian if only he devoted himself fully to a life in chlorinated water. He finished second behind veteran Tom Malchow in the 200 fly at the U.S. trials. At the Olympics in Sydney, there was Phelps family tension as Michael’s father, Fred, who was by then divorced from Debbie Phelps, brought his newlywed second wife to the Games. Fred meant no harm, but awkwardness ensued. Michael pushed through, made the final and finished fifth, just .33 away from a silver medal that would have made him the youngest U.S. male swimming medalist in history. He has, of course, been making up for this narrow miss for a decade and a half.
Phelps won the 200 butterfly four years later in Athens and four years after that in Beijing, part of his record eight gold medals. At the 2009 world championships, wearing a high-tech non-textile suit of the variety that would be banned in 2010, Phelps broke his own world record in the 200 fly with a time of 1:51.51, a time that could stand for a very long time. Phelps owns the four fastest times in the event and six of the top eight. He added another world title in 2011.
Then came the London Olympics a year later. Phelps arrived in London game to race, but unprepared, the result of indifferent training and lifestyle issues that wouldn’t be resolved until he crashed catastrophically, more than two years later. Phelps opened with a fourth-place finish in the 400-meter individual medley, a result that was shocking even to Bowman. “I thought he would swim badly and finish second,” Bowman says. “He swam badly and finished fourth.” One night later, Phelps swam fast on the second leg of the 4x100-free relay and two nights after that, was second to South African Chad le Clos in the 200 fly, touched out by .05 seconds. It was Phelps’s first major 200 fly defeat in more than a decade.
But in that defeat, Bowman found a window to Phelps’s soul, something that, even in all their years together, he had never fully grasped. “That race was a freaking miracle by a guy who didn’t train [properly] for that event for three years,” says Bowman. “No one else in history could reach down like that, at that moment, and get to the point where he could get out-touched by five-hundredths.” There was a message in that moment: Even unfit and disinterested, seeking an exit strategy from the sport that made him wealthy and famous, Phelps’s natural talent and punishing competitiveness would not let go.
He also would not let go of the race, carrying it with him and keeping it alive through all the drama of the years that followed, the drunk driving and the rehab, the reconciliation with his father—the rediscovery of his love for Nicole Johnson, his fiancée, the birth of his son. “That 2012 200 fly, once I watched it,” says Phelps, “it kind of stuck with me. This was a race I really wanted tonight. I really wanted it bad.”
(He might have wanted it, too, because le Clos was in the race. In the years following London, le Clos had occasionally trash-talked Phelps, who had once been his inspiration. That was stoked before Monday night’s semifinal, when ready room cameras captured le Clos shadow-boxing while Phelps glared into space, promoting the hashtag #PhelpsFace.)
The race went off in the wake of Katie Ledecky’s second individual gold. Phelps was in second place at the first wall, just behind Laszlo Cseh of Hungary, who is only a year younger than Phelps and who came into the race with the fastest time of 2016. But Phelps came off the wall and into the lead. At 100 meters, he was .33 in front of Cseh and at 150 he was .67 in front of le Clos. In the final 50 meters, Cseh cratered, finishing seventh. Le Clos faded to fourth and Japan’s Masato Sakai, 21, closed to finish only .04 behind Phelps, whose winning time of 1:53.36 was not particularly fast. “I began watching Michael when I was five years old,” Sakai said, through an interpreter.
Phelps said, “The last 10 meters were not fun. Oh my god. I thought I was standing still.” As for the slowish time, Phelps said, “I don’t care about the time. Just happy I was able to win.”
After he turned and saw the result, Phelps raised two index fingers into the air and then flexed his right biceps muscle while straddling the lane buoys in a pose that almost could be called defiant. Phelps’s victory celebrations—and there have been many—have ranged from passive to animalistic. This one approached the latter. “What happened four years ago stuck with me,” said Phelps. “It’s still with me. I came into the pool on a mission. And the mission was accomplished.”
During the medal ceremony, Phelps at first seemed choked up during the national anthem. “Going through the last 16 years,” he said, “this event has kind of been my bread-and-butter, and this was the last time I will ever swim it.” And then he began to laugh, when a friend from Baltimore loudly yelled “O!” during the “Star-Spangled Banner,” an Orioles’ fan tradition that Phelps instantly recognized. He went into the stands, kissed his mother and fiancée and briefly held his three-month old son, Boomer. “I wanted to hold him longer,” Phelps said.
Fourteen minutes later, the relay was underway. It is an event that the U.S. dominates, having failed to take gold just three times in the last 16 Games in which it has participated. But Phelps was tired. “Doing a double like that is a lot harder than it once was,” said Phelps.
“Michael said, ‘Get me a lead, guys, I’m tired,’” said Conor Dwyer, who did exactly that on the opening leg. But it was 19-year-old Townley Haas who blew the race open, swimming 1:44.14 for his 200-meter split, the fastest of any racer in the event, and giving the U.S. a two-second lead. (While Haas was swimming, Phelps realized that his racing cap had ripped; he took one from Dwyer, and turned it inside out so as not to compromise his sponsor arrangements.) Ryan Lochte, whose remarkable career has been overshadowed by Phelps, swam a conservative 1:46.03 in open water and Phelps came home easy in 1:45.25. The U.S. won by nearly two and a half seconds. Phelps’s medal count rose further.
It is truly insane. It is truly mind-blowing. And it is not over yet.