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As gold medals stack up, Michael Phelps finding closure at Rio Olympics

In what is expected to be his final Olympics, Michael Phelps is finding more joy, perspective and youth among the gold medals in Rio.

RIO DE JANEIRO – An American swimmer won a gold medal Thursday night. This American touched the wall tied for first, turned and rose from the water to face the giant scoreboard at the opposite end of the pool, where swimmers learn their fate. This American absorbed the information illuminated on the board, put hand to mouth and opened eyes wide in wonder. The board does not lie, it freezes the outcome and does not change. What’s done is done. Moments later, this American stood at the top of the victory podium while the national anthem was played and the American flag was hoisted toward the ceiling of the Rio Olympic Aquatics stadium. A tear formed at the base of the swimmer’s left eye, and another at the base of the right. Both tears paused, as if considering their fate, and then rolled down the cheeks before falling to the floor. 

Such an amazing thing, a gold medal. You swim, you run, you box, you row, you tumble; in hopes that one day you will earn a chance to compete for your country in the Olympic Games. Perhaps you dare to dream that you will win a medal and perhaps that medal will be gold. So much must happen. You must have transcendent talent and also train very hard. You must be healthy and strong. You must deliver on the day. It is all so rare and unimaginable. But the gold medal is why we are here in this place in Brazil, contesting and chronicling an Olympic Games that fights every day for its own survival.

Michael Phelps, Simone Manuel, Ryan Murphy add to U.S gold medal total

The American swimmer Thursday night was Simone Manuel, tied for first place in the women’s 100-meter freestyle with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak. It was an unexpected victory. Favorite and world record holder Cate Campbell went out a little too fast in the first 50 meters and got tired. She finished fifth and Manuel was there to fill the void. It is the first gold medal of her life and who knows, maybe her last. She is the first African-American woman to win an individual gold medal in swimming, a momentous achievement. “I want to be an inspiration,” she said minutes after her race. Tears, history, dreams. Such is the power of a single gold medal.

Michael Phelps has 22 gold medals, 13 of them in individual events and nine others in relays. Thursday night, just 12 minutes before Manuel’s victory, Phelps won the 200-meter individual medley for the fourth consecutive time. It was his third individual and fourth total gold medal in Rio. The medals are piled so high that become somehow less meaningful, like the bundles of $100 bills in a crime movie. Instead, we should think of every one of Phelps’s gold medals like Manuel’s one, each successive one no less powerful than the one before it.

“People have no idea how difficult it is to win one Olympic gold medal,” said Phelps’s longtime coach and U.S. men’s Olympic coach Bob Bowman. “Michael has done it so frequently that it’s really hard to put into perspective. But every one of those was hard.”

These current medals, in particular. They are different from all the others, which Phelps won as a naïve, 19-year-old phenom (Athens, 2004), a blindly driven 23-year-old machine (Beijing, 2008) and a bitter 27-year-old, dragged kicking and screaming to the starting blocks, undertrained and indifferent (London, 2012). What his career had accumulated in medals it lacked in closure and, increasingly, joy.

He returned haltingly to the pool in 2013, but did not commit. Then, famously, he was arrested for drunk driving in September of 2014, went through rehab and emerged reborn. He is engaged, with a three-month-old son. But there was the swimming. He needed to make peace with the swimming. But that would require an engagement he had not delivered in many years. “I kind of knew when I started coming back that it wasn’t going to be an easy process,” said Phelps last night after his gold medal race, during a poignant and reflective press conference that encapsulated so much of the last 16 years and the last 22 months of his life and remarkable career.

“I knew that I was going to have to force myself to go through pain that I didn’t want to go through,” he said. “But if I wanted the end result, I had to do it.”

This would be a new experience, or at the very least a rediscovered one. He had once been dedicated, but in the four years leading to London, he rarely trained with vigor and often did not train at all. He frequently took hangovers into the water. “I was always looking for shortcuts,” said Phelps. “Oh, maybe I can skip a week here or skip a week there. Or, no, I don’t need to do that butterfly.”

Because he was—and is—immensely talented and because he had trained for so long before Beijing, Phelps won two individual gold medals in London, took silver in a third race and finished fourth in another. Obviously, this would be stunning for most swimmers, but for Phelps it was an embarrassment. Then came his dry land issues. He was walking away bitter and damaged with no love for the sport that once gave him confidence in life. “It all started,” he said Thursday night, “Just as a kid who wasn’t afraid.”

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That is what he sought to rediscover in this last act. “The only reason I did it,” he said. “Was to get back to what I once was. And race at this level consistently.”

After rehabilitation, the best of Michael Phelps may lie ahead

His performances in Rio have been astounding, from his killer turn on the second leg of the 4X100-meter freestyle relay to Tuesday night double in the 200-meter butterfly to his solid anchor leg on the 4X200-meter free relay, finishing the job after a kid 12 years his junior, Townley Haas, had busted the race open.

Last night Phelps faced down Ryan Lochte for the 18th time in a national or international championship 200IM. They have been friends and rivals for 12 years, since Phelps beat Lochte in the 200IM at the Olympics Trials and Olympic Games in 2004. Thursday night was billed as the last great battle between two legends, and a night to remember that Lochte’s 12 career medals (six gold) is second only to Phelps among Olympic male swimmers. His misfortune is to have been born a year before Phelps.

And on Thursday night, the race delivered another dose of perspective on Phelps’s enduring greatness. Phelps turned at the first wall in second place, transitioning from butterfly to backstroke. Lochte was solidly in third. Lochte, a world-class backstroker in his prime, took the lead on the second, while Phelps moved into second place. Butthat was the end for Lochte, who seemed to age before our eyes in the final 100 meters. His breaststroke (third) leg was the slowest in the field, his closing freestyle the second slowest. He finished fifth. "It just wasn’t there," said Lochte. "I felt great for the first quarter. It just wasn’t there at the end."

It was for Phelps. After the conservative start, his backstroke leg was second-fastest in the field and his breaststroke leg was third-fastest, on a stroke that is historically Phelps's worst. "We've been working on that,'' said Bowman. Phelps closed the final 50 free in 27.70, fastest in the field. His winning time of 1:54.66 was the eighth-fastest of all time, and his winning margin of 1.95 seconds was the second-largest in his four Olympic wins. "He swam a great tactical race," said Bowman.

How Michael Phelps's body has changed over his five Olympic Games

Moments later, as he stood alone on the top step of the medal stand for the 13th time in his career, Phelps was visibly emotional. His chest heaved up and down (He might have still been recovering from the race—“My body is in pain, my legs are hurting,” he said afterward) and tears formed in his eyes. His 100-meter butterfly heat awaited and in these situations Bowman has long told Phelps to steel himself against becoming too emotional. “I always said, ‘Build that fire up while you listen,’” said Bowman. That was impossible here. The emotions of two, long years are spilling out in little pieces each night, as Phelps sees the big picture, and many little ones, as well.

“The biggest thing for me, through the meet so far,” said Phelps. “I’ve been able to kind of finish how I wanted to. You know? I’ve been able to come back and I’ve been able to accomplish things I’ve dreamt of. I felt like a kid again, and that’s the difference. I felt like I was 18.”

A question hangs in the air. Phelps has two events left in Rio: The 100-meter butterfly Friday night and the butterfly leg on the 4X100-meter medley relay Saturday night. He must be considered a solid favorite in the 100 fly and the relay is a prohibitive favorite. There is a very strong possibility that Phelps will leave Rio with six gold medals, and a total of 24 in his career. Why not keep going?

“I’ve actually said those words to him,” said Bowman. “I think he’s in such a good place personally that he doesn’t need it. He wants to wrap it up, knowing that he gave it everything, he prepared well, he did it the right way.”

Phelps lingered on that point. “This has been a very, very special meet so far,” he said. “For closing out my career.” He seemed to leave no wiggle room. And that feels unimportant now. Something beyond words is taking place in the pale blue water of the Olympic pool. A record grows, a legend comes to life, a moment lingers. And a man has found his youth.