Thursday, July 28, 2011

Doing the Impossible

The FINA World Championships are on TV every day this week (NBC Universal Sports). In between sessions in Shanghai, Universal Sports has been playing a lot of highlights from the Beijing Games. Last night, exactly one year before the London Games begin, the channel showed a two-hour long special on Michael Phelps, which included all eight of his gold medal-winning performances at the Water Cube.

Like I hadn’t seen them before, I glued myself to the television for all eight races, reliving the moment when I watched them live in Milwaukee three summers ago. I sat at the edge of the couch. I jumped, clapped, and cheered like I didn’t know the outcome. But I did reflect more this time around on the impact of Phelps’ accomplishment and the difficulty of it, no, the impossibility of it. It just doesn’t seem possible. There were too many close calls from the 400 free relay in which Lezak swam the fastest 100m free in relay history to run down the trash-talking French in the last 10m to the 200 butterfly in which Phelps’ goggles filled up with water and then, to the ultimate, .01 victory over Milorad Cavic in the 100 fly. The 7th gold was the most impossible. Cavic and Phelps could have tied and they would have both received gold, but that wasn’t good enough. Fate had other plans and Phelps just had to win by .01.

Being as unbiased as possible, Phelps’ accomplishment is the greatest in all of sports history. The only thing in my mind that comes relatively close is Lance Armstrong’s string of seven Tour de France victories. And one thing Phelps certainly has going for him that a lot of great accomplishments in sport suffer from, is that his accomplishment isn’t covered in a shroud of doubt. Whether you think Armstrong doped or not, enough people have come forward saying he has that it gets you thinking and, if you are like me, it gets you worrying because you hate to see any great victory in sports be called into questions because it was achieved by unnatural means. Phelps’ eight gold medals aren’t spoiled by that.

Never again will Phelps or any other swimmer attempt 17 races in one Olympic games. Never mind the schedule being too grueling, there just aren’t swimmers out there as diverse as Phelps. The only one that could come close now is Ryan Lochte, but for him to win the 100 and 200 lengths of backstroke, the 200 and 400 IMs, the 200 free, and all three relays it would take some incredible turnaround swims in London and that is just not going to happen. I don’t think Phelps’ record will ever be broken or tied.

Can you think of anything more impressive? I am trying to view Phelps’ victories through an objective lens and I still just shake my head in disbelief every time I see one of those swims. Everything aligned in 2008. It’s not going to be the same in 2012. Phelps will get more gold, but Lochte is going to be closer, having now defeated Phelps at Worlds this week in the 200 free and 200 IM. But I’m ready. One year from today, it begins again.

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