Sometimes an athlete’s greatness isn’t fully appreciated until he or she has left the field of competition. That will not be the case however with Michael Phelps, who apparently climbed out of the pool for the last time Saturdaty night in Rio.
Phelps closed out his career with 28 Olympic medals. A total of 23 of them were gold. If Saturday was indeed his last race, he will go down as the greatest competitor in the history of his sport.
The distinction of ‘Greatest of all time’ is one that is bestowed far too readily, whether to an athlete, an actor, a singer a sculptor, or an artist in some other discipline. More often than not it is difficult to know with certainty who is the ‘all-time best.’
Comparing athletes from different eras is a risky business. Today’s athletes are physically nigger and stronger and are better trained and better nourished than their predecessors. The sports they engage in have evolved as well, thanks to technology.
But for two decades, Phelps has been a factor in a sport in which there are no shortcuts to success. The baseball player who can no longer field his position becomes a designated hitter. The pitcher who loses his fastball to Father Time can change his approach and still be successful. The football player can loses his starting position and still fill a reserve role.
The swinner however, knows only the long hours in the pool, day after day, year after year. Over time many lose the ability, physically or mentally, to pile on all that yardage. But Phelps, who is now 31, was able to maintain his focus well enough and long enough to compete in five Olympic Games.
Athletes of his stature come along rarely in the course of a career or lifetime. Those who have enjoyed watching him, whether they are swimming enthusiasts, or if they only pay attention to the sport only when the Olympics come around, should commit his efforts to memory.
Video of his performances is already available on line and his records are now part. Of his sport’s history. But the experience of watching him live in the pool, through the medium of television, is one that should be savor end. For his like will not come our way again for a very, very long time.