Michael Phelps stood on the blocks before the start of the 200-meter butterfly, and for the thousands of people in attendance and the millions watching at home, the outcome seemed certain. Phelps would win. Not even a discussion.
He would not win because he was the best swimmer. He would not win because he had the drive, or the determination, or the out-of-my-way edge that he has shown us over the years. Phelps would win because, plain and simple, he was supposed to win.
With a chance to tie Larisa Latynina for the most Olympic medals in history, Phelps was swimming his signature event, which he has taken gold in for the past two Olympics. Another gold would not only give him the coveted 18th medal, but it was also make him the first Olympian to ever win gold in the same event three Olympics in a row.
He was supposed to win.
Sitting there on my couch at home, I did something that always manages to screw me over. I caught Sports Movie Syndrome. It is not the hardest affliction to diagnose. One just has to watch sports, and upon sensing the impending history or upset or headline story in the morning, they have to fully buy in to what is supposed to happen. After all, in 95% of sports movies, the people who are supposed to come out on top do exactly that. The star player makes the last shot. The surprisingly-athletic white guy catches the game-winning pass. The girl with the mysteriously-unnamed knee injury hobbles back onto the field and boots the final goal. Everything that is supposed to happen, happens.
Except for Tuesday night. Phelps lost that race by five one-hundredths of a second.
We never saw it coming, he never saw it coming. Even after the touch, I for one still thought he had won. Then, the top three finishers flashed onscreen. I saw the first flash for the gold medalist appear, but Phelps’ lane was empty. Then there it was. 2—Phelps, and Sports Movie Syndrome passed right through me.
For the next five minutes NBC broke down how it happened. My father and I claimed that he came up between strokes, pure dumb luck. If he had taken another stroke he would have been too far into the wall; his finish would not be a full extension, and therefore slower, not as efficient. His other option was to prolong the glide, which he did. It allows him full extension, but it also kills his momentum. Either way, le Clos, the gold medalist for that event, finishes first. Somehow le Clos’ tempo left him with the perfect finish. Full momentum, full extension. Perfect. I was stunned. My father was disappointed. It had come down to the smallest of details, down to where each swimmer just happened to be positioned in the water with 2 meters to go in a 200-meter race.
Phelps would say later that he was admittedly lazy on that finish. Maybe he had a small case of Sports Movie Syndrome too. Maybe during the course of the race, he felt his lead, felt the history, and knew that he was supposed to win. Maybe that is why an old practice habit came back to nip at him one last time. Maybe his mind was caught up in the moment, like we all were.
After the race, as I was sitting there with my father talking about what happened, I realized I was angry. The ultimate dream of every sports fan is the ability to say I was there. I saw this happen. And you know what? I will never forget it. On Tuesday night, I was denied that moment. We all were denied that moment. History was supposed to play out perfectly before our eyes, and things were not perfect. It was not supposed to be this way. It never was supposed to be this way. It was unfair. It was unfair to the fans, it was unfair to the broadcasters, and most of all, it was unfair to Michael Phelps. He deserved that moment, and history had shut the door.
I was in too crappy of a mood to watch much else, so I opened up ESPN.com to see what the writers were saying. Mr. Wayne Drehs had a story out. It covered the aftermath of the event, and talked about Phelps’ reaction. I looked.
Chad le Clos, the South African who edged out Phelps, is supposed to be the bad guy. The Apollo Creed to our Rocky. After he won, I hated him. What an asshole. Then I read how he had watched Phelps swim at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and decided he wanted to be a swimmer too. I read how he admits himself to be the Human Fish’s biggest fan. I read how his excitement at the podium caused the best swimmer of all time to smile, take pictures with him afterward, even show him how to properly display the gold medal that, only a few minutes earlier, he had demanded as his own. Chad le Clos was just a kid celebrating “the greatest moment of my life.” Maybe he is not the bad guy after all.
Something else can be found in that story too. Phelps is alright. He is laughing and talking with the man who had denied him one of the pinnacle achievements of his career. He has accepted what happens. He knows the touch could have been better, but “I’m okay with that. It’s the decision I made.” His coach, Bob Bowman, said it happened somewhere in the warm-down pool. “He got in . . . and started swimming and really within about five minutes he gathered his composure and was ready to go.”
That speaks of a champion. That speaks of someone who has matured and grown and come into his own over the course of four Olympics. That speaks of someone who knows that even when things do not end up the way they are supposed to, life can go on. Never has silver been so bright.
Later that night Phelps would anchor the men’s 800 free relay, and he would coast in to his record-setting 19th medal of his Olympic career. This time, it was gold. Whooping and cheering with his teammates, you could not find even a trace of the prior event on Phelps’ face. He was happy. He was having fun. He had moved on, and he was signaling us to do the same.
For a long time, we were used to Phelps winning gold. Anything else was a huge disappointment, a failure, even. But maybe, as Drehs points out in his article, the recent shortcomings are a testament to the achievement. The silvers and bronzes just show how tough it is to win the golds, and Phelps has fifteen of those.
I logged off of ESPN. I felt better. I decided to write this article because I think that a lot of people felt the same way I did. They felt cheated out of a sports-movie ending. But if you think about it, it seems that we found one after all. Our hero in Phelps was still a hero. He was still a champion. It showed in his character that Tuesday night. As for the real champion? Maybe we forget that Chad le Clos had his sports-movie ending. Maybe we forget that a lot of people were hoping he would hit the wall first. You can picture them now, jumping and down and hugging and crying. It was a miracle.
Standing there next to the swimmer whom he calls his hero, holding up his gold medal, le Clos probably could not help but think one thing: this is the way it was supposed to be.
When we have nights like Tuesday night, I think about how much I love sports.