One of the greatest things about the Olympics is that it gives athletes in lesser-known disciplines their moment in the spotlight. Just in my lifetime, names like Kerri Strug, Rulon Gardner, Tara Lipinski, Picabo Street, Shani Davis, Michael Johnson, and Apollo Ohno have become legendary in American sporting lore. Most of these athletes competed and were champions at multiple Olympics, but in some cases—Lipinski in 1998, Strug in 1996, Gardner in 2000—they are remembered for one moment of brilliance which took them and their team to the top of their sport.
Now consider Michael Phelps. In a sport in which the best athletes are typically at their peak for a maximum of two Olympics, Michael Phelps has been unequivocally the best swimmer in the world for four Olympics in a row. Other than in 2000, in which he only competed in one event, he has never won fewer than four gold medals. He holds the Olympic record in gold medals won (23), total medals won (28), gold individual medals won (13), total individual medals won (16), most gold medals won in a single Olympics (8), most medals won in a single Olympics (8), and most consecutive gold medals in a single event (4, for the 200 IM). And I could go on.
Winning one gold medal is amazing. Winning multiple gold medals is incredible. Winning 23 gold medals spanning 4 Olympics almost defies belief. And yet, when we turn on the TV to see Phelps race, we expect him to win every event he is in and are disappointed—disappointed!—when he has to “settle” for a silver or, god forbid, a bronze medal. In evoking this reaction, Phelps has elevated himself to the highest level of the sports pantheon, the level at which the extraordinary becomes rote. Of course Michael Jordan hit the championship-winning shot. Of course Usain Bolt broke his own world record. Of course Michael Phelps won another gold medal. Why should we expect anything different?
It can be difficult, when we encounter this level of athlete, to appreciate the greatness as it is happening. This is particularly true for Olympians. In a sporting event that venerates moments, Phelps has been a constant. He has had no real rivals, no challengers to his watery throne. Through all the tumult and churn in the swimming world, Phelps has continued: standing on top of podium after podium, breaking record after record, as unchanging as the tide.
That’s not to say Phelps has left us bereft of moments: his flair for the dramatic is well-known, and the 100m fly in Beijing and Athens, the 200 butterfly this year, the 4×100 free relay in Bejing were all among the best Olympics events I’ve ever watched. But what really sets Phelps apart, what truly establishes the magnitude of his brilliance, is the near-certainty we feel when he leaps into the pool that he will touch the wall first. He has set expectations impossibly high and proceeded to meet or exceed them every time.
For the last twelve years, we have been able to count on a few things, and only a few things, in the Olympics—there will be a scandal involving the host country, an athlete will be charged with doping, and Michael Phelps will win the most gold medals. Now, as Phelps retires from competition and swims off towards the horizon, we should take a moment and be thankful that we were privileged enough to watch the greatest swimmer, and perhaps the greatest Olympian, that there has ever been.
After working in Washington, D.C., for two years, Andrew Orlebeke (’10) is in graduate school in Seattle, Washington, studying public policy. In addition to public service, he has a passion for traveling and an abiding love of sports.