There weren’t too many mysteries that were beyond the intellect of a certain Albert Einstein. It is worth recollecting his famous eulogy of Mahatma Gandhi, in the context of an impossibly brilliant Michael Phelps. "Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth." The great scientist, if alive today, would have wasted no time using the exact same words to capture the enormity of Phelps’ accomplishments in Olympic waters.
Phelps collected his fourth gold medal of Rio 2016 with an almost irreverent nonchalance that threatens the laws of physics. Any attempt to fathom the impossible success and longevity of the 31-year-old swimmer, nearly dinosaurian by aquatic standards, is like trying to master quantum physics through distance learning.
Phelps splashed onto the international stage at the turn on the millennium. At just 15, Phelps made the finals of the 200m butterfly, finishing fifth in an event that he made his own over the years. Not too long after that, Phelps became the youngest male swimmer ever to set a world record when he set a new time for the 200m fly at just 15 years and 9 months.
It is insane to even think that he remains unbeatable a full fifteen years later in a sport like swimming that takes a quantum leap every two to four years. It will take decades for us to just understand the magnitude of his accomplishments — 22 gold medals, 2 silver and 2 bronze. Staggering just to hear those numbers, isn’t it?
It is futile arguing Olympic greatness, for the story underlying every single medal is a tale of nuanced, painstaking effort to make the most of human talent. The circumstances and constraints surrounding the journey of these athletes are unique to each individual, making comparisons frivolous.
The four medals that Jesse Owens won, for instance, brook no equal. At a time when slavery and oppression were still tearing societies apart, the performance of Owens before the World War II broke out is one of the greatest athletic feats ever known to mankind. His single act of defiance through his brilliance on the track and its impact on the social milieu of the time transcended sport and time.
The success of Phelps on the other hand is a far more individual story of excellence and mind-numbing work ethic that will serve to inspire many generations of swimmers. Phelps has also opened new commercial vistas for swimming, making life financially rewarding for his ilk. Having said that, there is no question that Phelps broke the perimeter of possibilities with his single-minded pursuit of Olympic glory.
The fact that Phelps would rank inside the top 40 on the list of nations with the largest collection of medals is an astounding feat of speed, endurance and athletic perfection. The manner in which he won the 200m medley, at his age, is a numbing alternative reality manifested by Phelps through his unflinching efforts outside of competition.
It took five hours a day, six days a week training program repeated year after year to create the Phelps we see and admire on television. There has been enough written about his 12000 calorie daily diet and 80000 metre swimming weeks, the thought itself enough to send us ordinary human beings into vertigo.
We cannot even begin to comprehend the brutality of the effort, the discipline and regimentation needed to help Phelps become the most decorated Olympian of all time. On that account alone, Phelps is outside the orbit on any measure imaginable. At 22 gold medals, Phelps is head and shoulders over Larisa Latynina, Paavo Nurmi, Mark Spitz and Carl Lewis, each having won just nine in comparison.
In fact Phelps’ haul of 26 Olympic medals is incidentally the same number of medals that India won over the years, except that our national collection contains 11 bronze, 6 silver and 9 gold. Phelps collected 14 gold medals from just Athens and Beijing.
The story of this great man is even more appealing when you consider the emotional trauma that he underwent just leading a normal life. After years of ascetic existence, Phelps thought that London may have been his final hurrah in the pool.
But he struggled to deal with an absence of purpose, going through a phase during which he drank excessively and even considered ending his life. The low point came in 2014 when he was arrested for driving under influence, forcing the 6'4" giant into rehab.
Just as every cloud has a silver lining so too, there was light at the end of the dark tunnel that Phelps was navigating just two years ago. NFL player and friend, Ray Lewis handed Phelps a book — The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren.
The book sowed the seeds of hope in Phelps, laying the foundation for a return to the pool. It did not matter that most people weren’t convinced about his ability to qualify into the team. Phelps gave up alcohol and began another period of disciplined living.
Incredibly, Phelps has conquered not just the rust in his body, but Father Time. Swimming is a sport in which athletes peak at 21. But despite being ten years older than the norm, Phelps has performed at a remarkably high level in Rio to seal his legacy among the greatest Olympians of all time.
It is possible that Phelps may have won another piece of metal by the time you read this story. Not that he needed any more medals after London, but having lived like a demigod for much of his career, the lanky American was craving more humane affirmation.
I think the beauty of Phelps’ revival in Rio and the burst of gold assumes significance in the context of his evolution as a champion. If the first phase of Phelps’ global dominance was a quest born in the determination of his mind, excellence in Rio has sprung from the despair in his heart.
In a way, the journey to Brasil completes the narrative for the most prolific athlete mankind has ever known. Perhaps the redemption in Rio will allow Phelps to embrace life beyond the waters. After 16 years of living for nano seconds, he can finally script a new post career life that can be measured in more human terms.
It does not matter if the legacy of Phelps is the greatest or not. The American has clearly pushed the boundaries of accomplishment and endurance farther than most men in the past century. That should be enough to allow Phelps several decades of reverence as an immortal among mortals.