How Winning Silver Won Michael Phelps My Respect
I’m obsessed with the Olympics.
It’s rather pathetic, actually. If I’m not watching a livestream, I’m on Twitter. Thankfully, most of the people I follow on Twitter are British, so I get a wider scope of the games and tweets without the hashtag #NBCfail.
Yesterday, I saw history made. Michael Phelps and Team USA won the gold in the men’s 2x400m freestyle relay, and Phelps received his 19th medal, breaking Soviet Gymnasts Larisa Latynia’s record of 18 as the most medaled Olympian of all time.
But I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about what happened an hour before Phelps won the gold.
I want to talk about what happened when Phelps lost to a 20-year-old South African named Chad le Clos.
I’m not a huge fan of Michael Phelps. Funny, considering how my favorite summer Olympic sport is swimming. Obviously, he’s got mad skills, and I might have gone a little crazy while watching the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but he’s not my number one favorite athlete of all time.
(In case you’re wondering, I don’t think I actually have one. Like I said before, I only get excited about sports during the Olympics or World Cup. The rest of the time I’m a very passive spectator. If I had to choose an athlete, I guess I would say Eric Liddell, but that has more to do with how he lived his life than how he won medals.)
The whole world knows Michael Phelps is good at what he does, and his performance in Beijing was legendary, so there have been mixed emotions in the last five days because Phelps has not won every race he’s participated in, and the races he has won have not been easy.
Yesterday, I watched as Chad le Clos won the men’s 200m butterfly by out-touching Michael Phelps.
It wasn’t supposed to happen. It couldn’t. Since 2003, in every international competition that Phelps has been a participant he has won the gold for the 200m butterfly. He wasn’t supposed to come in second.
But he did.
I had so many emotions.
I was happy for le Clos. It was his very first Olympics and the kid was stinkin’ adorable and so excited. It was a David-and-Goliath moment, and everyone loves those. Some kid turning the tables and defeating the expectant winner. It’s good entertainment.
I felt a little smug. Take that, Michael I’m-so-cool, look-at-all-my-medals-and-sponsors, can-we-say-over-hyped, don’t-forget-about-the-pot-controversy Phelps.
I was also very sad. Poor, poor Phelps.
It was obvious that Phelps agreed with me on the last. Poor, poor Phelps indeed. While le Clos screamed in triumph, Phelps looks so disappointed that I couldn’t stay smug. It was sad.
As Phelps waited at the podium for his name to be called, he appeared lost in his own world. He wasn’t sulking like I half-expected him to be. He just looked sad and disappointed.
“Sheepish” was the word the Beeb’s broadcasters used.
When it was his turn to step forward, Phelps did so with a smile and a wave. He might have lost the gold, but his silver medal was his eighteenth Olympic medal, and that in itself was an impressive achievement.
And then the coolest thing happened. Phelps looked to his left at Chad le Clos. The South African couldn’t have been happier. He had just outswam not only the man claimed to be the greatest swimmer and athlete of all time, but his own idol.
It’s the type of story that should happen at the Olympics.
Chad le Clos stood there on the podium with his gold medal, and his happiness was so infectious that Michael Phelps couldn’t stop himself from smiling.
It was amazing. As soon as he smiled, Phelps relaxed. He looked happy. Perhaps even content. I don’t know. I’m not him. I just know that the transition on Phelps’s face was obvious. He went from thinking about himself to being happy for le Clos.
As the Olympic medalists were herded off the podium and led around to the various photographers and journalists, le Clos didn’t seem to know what to do. Phelps stepped up. He pointed him in the right direction, he told him when to hold up his medal and when to smile. The veteran Olympian showed the new kid the ropes with humility, and the world got to see it.
“Gracious” the Brits called Phelps.
If I was le Clos, I think I would have died from happiness.
An hour later, both Phelps and le Clos returned to the pool to compete in the men’s 4x200m freestyle relay with their countrymen. Having seen Ryan Lochte and Americans lose to France in the men’s 4x100m free, I was a little nervous.
Especially when it was announced that Phelps would swim the final leg. The race had the potential of being either really good for America or really bad.
It was good. Really good. Phenomenally good. Thanks to Lochte, Dwyer, and Berens, by the time Phelps dove into the pool, he was a whole body-length ahead of the rest, and he kept the lead. He didn’t slack off. He didn’t cruise into the wall. He just went for it, won the gold, and broke the record for the most Olympic medals of all time.
I’m proud of him. He raced well, and he deserves his achievements. But mostly I’m proud of him for showing such grace and humility in accepting the silver medal. Phelps has said that this will be his last Olympics. I think he can look back on his time in London and be content.
High-five Michael Phelps.
He still has two more races to go. Bring it on.