BEIJING – Fifty-eight minutes. What can you do with that? Almost watch a TV drama? Nearly finish a business lunch? Fifty-eight minutes. You get change back from your hour. In normal human life, it’s not much of an opportunity. But there is little normal or even human about what Michael Phelps is doing at the Summer Olympics.
He had three golds and three world records when the sun rose today in China, and the breakfast hour would bring him two finals – the 200-meter butterfly and the 800-meter freestyle relay – in a single session. Fifty-eight minutes between them. Win the first, become the most-decorated gold medalist in the history of the Olympic Games. Win the second, be just three victories from pushing Mark Spitz off his pedestal.
Phelps called it “a pretty big morning.”
Yeah. If you’re into that kind of stuff.
And splash! Phelps was in the pool, lunging, undulating, kicking, lunging again. It’s a violent, explosive stroke, the butterfly, swimmers churning like motors in the midst of their own bubbling waves, nearly riding above the water. The 200 butterfly is to Phelps what a dunk is to LeBron James. He’s the best. But even a dunk can be pressure-packed when the ghosts of Olympic history are watching from the stands. Not to mention LeBron James himself, who was there, cheering, along with Kobe Bryant.
Phelps touched the wall second at the quarter point, first at the halfway point and first at the three-quarters point.
And then he headed for home. He’s sprung a leak
Now, it’s hard enough to arrive at a sporting event at 10 in the morning – and that’s for a fan. There’s getting up. There’s traffic. There’s finding where you go. For Phelps there was all that – plus dressing, warming up, all the official this and that which goes with the business of participating in an Olympic final. And, oh, yeah, the swimming. I don’t know about you, but I’m lucky to drag myself onto a treadmill at 10 in the morning, and I need two cups of coffee.
But here was Phelps, shoulders surging, arms reaching, ahead of the pack with the crowd rising to its feet. The butterfly puts you most in the pose of Superman flying – both arms straight ahead, your chin jutting forward – and it was fitting that with his final stroke, Phelps was stretched just that way when his fingers made contact with the wall.
Victory! And yes, a world record, six hundredths of a second off his old mark. Phelps popped out of the water, pulled his goggles and cap and tossed them to the deck. He had just become the winningest gold-medal athlete in the history of the Olympics. He owned 10 golds. Carl Lewis was behind him and Spitz was behind him. Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi and Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina were behind him.
“My goggles kept filling up with water during the race,” he told the media. “I wanted a world record, I wanted 1:51 or better, but in the circumstances not too bad I guess.”
Oh, yes. He had another race in front of him.
And a medal ceremony to attend to. Flowers and pictures
How crazy is this? Phelps is like one of those plate jugglers, racing to catch this one and that one, a heat here, a final there. Catch that plate. Don’t drop that one. Seventeen races all told in nine days? No counting how many trips to warm up, to cool down, to warm up again.
At six minutes after 11 o’clock – still brunch time in Beijing – and just 13 minutes from the scheduled start time of his relay race, Phelps came out to the medal stand and rose when his name was called. His raised his arms. He had his sweat suit on, his sweat pants, his sneakers, none of which he would have when he jumped back in the pool in a few minutes, but all of which are required for decorum on the victory stand.
He stood as “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played, his mouth slightly open in that funny, collegiate-looking, “no big deal” posture.
How does he stay that calm? Wouldn’t you want to race into the locker room? Wouldn’t you be speeding off at the last mention of “home of the brave …”? This after all is your history, your legacy, your chance. You’ve waited a lifetime.
So what’s a few more minutes, I guess? Phelps, rather than running off, circled around the deck, threw flowers to his mother, posed for photos with the other swimmers. Eleven minutes to his race. Ten minutes. Plates falling here. Plates falling there.
“Michael Phelps has become the greatest gold-medal winner in the Olympics history!” the arena announcer bellowed. “And the greatest Olympian of all time!”
Not to mention the fastest dresser. And the next event
“I was actually thinking about it on the medal ceremony,” Phelps would tell NBC when the morning was done. “I was trying to get ready for (the) relay, keep my mood focused. I kept fighting myself every time I started thinking about (the gold-medal record), tearing up a little bit.”
Tears? Who had time for tears?
Moments later, Phelps was back out with his U.S. teammates for the 800 freestyle, the white ear buds under his cap, blasting music. You would swear there was a phone booth back there.
Sweats off. Onto the block. And splash! He was back in the water, the lead-off man. If there was fatigue, it didn’t show. Phelps was ahead of the pack before the halfway mark of the first lap. He touched the wall on a world-record pace – already? – and touched three more times before teammate Ryan Lochte leapt into the water.
Now all Phelps could do was watch. He urged on Lochte – after all, these guys held Phelps’ legacy in their hands – but there was little worry. Whatever Phelps has got seemed to be contagious. Lochte, and Ricky Berens after him and anchorman Peter Vanderkaay of Rochester after him caught the bug. By the end it seemed as if they were in a different race than the rest of the swimmers. They stroked. They put distance between the field. They stroked and put more distance.
When Vanderkaay touched the wall, the U.S. swimmers hadn’t just broken the world record, they’d smashed it. Nearly five seconds shaved off! A timing time of 6:58.56, breaking seven minutes for the first time in history!
Phelps, with his bodysuit halfway pulled down his body, threw his hands into the air, hugged his teammates, and it was only their embrace that kept him from lifting one level higher than the rest of humanity.
“I’m almost at a loss of words ” Phelps told NBC. “The people who came before us and competed in the Olympic Games are some of the greatest athletes who ever lived. And to win the most gold medals . it’s unbelievable. I just have no idea what to say.”
Eleven golds. Six in Athens, five in Beijing. Spitz’s record of seven in one Games clearly in his sights.
What was it Peirsol said? “It might be once a century, you see something like this”?
Maybe longer. Fifty-eight minutes. Two gold medals. Two world records. Three outfit changes. One cool down. One medal ceremony. One flower toss to your mother. One Kobe and LeBron nod of approval.
Oh, yeah, and a place in the pantheon of Olympic history.
So how are you going to spend the next hour?
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). www.freep.com/mitch.