London Olympics 2012: Phelps is just here to have fun
Michael Phelps walked on to the stage in the giant auditorium in the Olympic village, sat down, took a camera from his pocket and smiled. When the greatest swimmer the world has ever known is taken aback by the vastness of his audience then you get an idea how big a deal his conference was yesterday.
When the man – sorry, The Man – who has won more Olympic gold medals (14) than anybody in history takes a picture of a room full of reporters, then it’s an illustration of a unique moment.
Only two men at these Games – and probably in the history of these Games – could have commanded such a notebook-wielding throng. There’s Usain Bolt and there’s Phelps.
And there is also now the first stirrings of a controversy. Phelps listened to a question from the floor about the great threat that Australia pose the Americans in the relay, their formidable group led by James Magnussen aided and abetted by James Roberts, Eamon Sullivan and Matt Target having been dubbed the “Weapons of Mass Destruction”.
“We take care of our own business,” said Phelps. “If you get caught up in other people’s talking, and this and that, it just takes away from what we’re here to do. We’re here to swim and that’s it. We’re not gonna run our mouths off. We never have. Our country has never done that.”
Ah, but there was a problem. The Americans did, indeed, “run their mouths off” once upon a time.
Back in 2000, in an infamous moment by the pool, Gary Hall Jnr promised that his brave boys wrapped in the Stars and Stripes would “smash Australia like guitars”.
Didn’t quite happen, of course. The Aussies won and Hall has never been able to live down that comment. “I forgot about Sydney,” Phelps laughed. “The people in this team haven’t done that. We didn’t say smash them like guitars.
“It’s going to be a challenging race for sure. We’re going to put our four guys up there at night who we think could swim the fastest time. If it’s the fastest time in the world it is, if it’s not, we’re going to try as hard as we can to swim as fast as we can.”
That can wait, though. In the main, Phelps was talking about his career and the last days of one of the most storied Olympians of all-time. He says he’s been watching the world go by from his place in the American camp, watching these young swimmers with their boundless energy and thinking that this is his last shot. He didn’t sound saddened at the prospect, just accepting and grateful.
“I don’t think that everything I have done in my career has set in,” he said. “But it will. These are the last competitive moments of my career. There’s going to be a lot of firsts and lasts this week. The goals are different this time. In Beijing I was trying to conquer everything, but I’m more relaxed here. I’m just having fun. It’s a question of how many toppings I want on my sundae.”
That was a reference to the number of medals he can win. Right now, he is out on his own with his total of golds but is still two behind the Russian gymnast, Larisa Latynina, in terms of the overall medal haul. Latynina has 18. “You know,” he said of the changing Olympic landscape, “I walked past three female Russian athletes and they were all taller than me. Man, I thought I was tall.
“I’m excited to be here, but sitting around and waiting can be annoying. I’m the only one in the common room all day, sitting around and watching episodes of The Wire. I’m trying to relax as much as I can.”
There’s a strange dynamic at play in the American team. There has to be. They’re representing their country, of course. They’re housed in the same facility.
They’re training together as team-mates and all the rest of it, but deep down there are some terrific rivalries here, the pick of them being Phelps’ battles with Ryan Lochte, the man who is being talked about as the best in the world and the multiple champion-in-waiting. The new Phelps in other words.
Lochte is a magnificent performer and a friend of Phelps, but how strange things must be in that camp with competition now so close at hand.
Strange in a number of ways. A few weeks back, another team-mate of Phelps, Tyler Clary, was quoted in a Californian newspaper saying that Phelps “doesn’t have to work as hard” as other swimmers and “it’s a real shame”. Phelps said Clary came to his room at America’s training camp in Knoxville to talk about it after the story appeared
“Tyler said it was taken out of context and he apologised the next day,” said Phelps. “I said to him he doesn’t need to say anything. There’s nothing that needs to be said. . . he apologised and sat in the room for ten minutes and talked to me. . . whatever he said, he said.
“Some people like to express their feelings in words. Some like to express them in action. I’ve always done that by swimming and that’s how I’ll continue to do it. People can say and do whatever they want. That’s fine. I’ve gotten to where I am today by working hard and I know that and [coach] Bob [Bowman] knows that. And nobody else thinks that, so it doesn’t matter. I’m very happy with my career and what I’ve done throughout it.”
If Phelps looked bothered he didn’t betray it. He just looked at ease, utterly relaxed about the job he is here to do and fully in control of his emotions. It’s a word he uses a lot; emotion. He seemed to be saying that some in the American team don’t know what to do with their emotional energy and that it might cause the problems, but he’s fine. He’s better than fine. He’s a man under no pressure as he sees it. One last hurrah with his legacy safe regardless.
“I’m preparing myself for the Olympics like I do for every meet,” he said. “Yes, it’s the Olympic games, but it’s one meet just like every other. There’s a pool, there are lane lines, there are stands and scoreboards. There are a lot more people but I’ve got to go and do what I’ve trained to do. When we step up and get behind the block we’re doing what we trained our whole lives for.”
Phelps is almost at his end, but expect a splash.
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