He big stage did not swallow Chad Le Clos in its floodlights, but he was in the dark when it came to finding his way out. Michael Phelps was there, as he has been for the past decade, to show the way.
During the parade of medalists, Le Clos, 20, of South Africa, was the one with tears in his eyes and the Olympic gold medal around his neck after handing Phelps his first major international defeat in the 200-meter butterfly since the Pan Pacific Championships in 2002. Le Clos was timed in 1 דקה 52.96 שניות, five-hundredths ahead of Phelps, who was nearly a second off his winning time in 2008 של 1:52.03.
“To be honest, I didn’t really think that I was going to win the race,” Le Clos said. “Just very proud. The race for me was more than an Olympic final. Ever since the 2004 Olympics, Michael’s always been an inspiration to me and a role model.”
As they made their way around the pool deck and posed with their medals, Le Clos said Phelps told him “to enjoy the moment because it’s really special” and explained the best way to negotiate the next half-hour because neither swimmer was done for the night.
Phelps made history when he anchored the United States team to a three-second victory over France in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay (Le Clos was the third swimmer on the South Africa team that placed seventh). With his 1:44.05 leg, Phelps not only turned back the French star Yannick Agnel, who had a split a 1:43.24, he also passed the Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina to become the most decorated Olympian of all time. Phelps has 19 medals, כולל 15 golds, with three races remaining: the 200 individual medley, the 100 butterfly and the 4×100 medley relay.
After climbing out of the pool, Phelps huddled in a circle on the deck with his relay teammates Ryan Lochte, Conor Dwyer and Ricky Berens and thanked them for helping him make history.
“It was an emotional feeling and a pretty good way to end the night,” said Phelps, whose eyes welled with tears during the playing of the national anthem at the relay medals ceremony.
הוא הוסיף: “The biggest thing I’ve always said is, anything is possible. I put my mind to doing something that nobody had done before and nothing was going to stand in my way.”
For defending Olympic champions here, swimmers of all shapes, ages and nationalities have been obstinately standing in their paths. With the eight-day meet at its halfway point, not a single 2008 champion has been able to repeat.
On Tuesday alone, in addition to Phelps there was Stephanie Rice, who finished fourth in the 200 individual medley after tying for sixth in defense of her 400 individual medley title. And Kosuke Kitajima was only the fifth-fastest qualifier for the final of the 200-meter breaststroke after surrendering his 100 breaststroke crown to Cameron Van Der Burgh on Sunday.
Teams in the major sports seldom win back-to-back titles, much less maintain their dominance from one quadrennium to the next. Since Phelps made his Olympic debut at the Sydney Games in 2000, the Giants have been to three Super Bowls, but none in succession. The Yankees won the World Series in 2000 and returned in 2001 but lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Yankees returned in 2003 and again lost, to the Florida Marlins, and won in 2009 by beating the Philadelphia Phillies.
If it is that hard for teams to reign year after year, why should Olympians shoulder great expectations to repeat every four years?
“I think people don’t know enough about swimming and how much it has grown over the past four years,” said Britain’s Rebecca Adlington, who won a bronze medal in the 400 freestyle with a time faster than her gold-medal effort in 2008. היא הוסיפה: “Everyone has just been saying to me, ‘Oh you going to get a gold?’ like I’m just going to pick up a drink, like it’s so easy. But swimming is one of the hardest sports to medal at.”
The American Tyler Clary, who finished fifth in the 200 butterfly, said of Phelps, “The fact that he’s been able to do what he’s been able to do for so long is a testament to how gifted he is.”
Phelps has held the world record in the 200 butterfly since 2001, and he held the lead Tuesday from the first stroke right up until the last, his latest bid to become the first man to win an individual event at three consecutive Olympics foiled. But he glided into the wall and Le Clos executed what he described as the perfect finish.
“To be honest, I think I was really lucky on the finish,” Le Clos said.
Phelps knew better. Four years ago, he out-touched Milorad Cavic in the 100 butterfly in similar fashion after practicing and perfecting every detail of that race — and the seven others he would win — with the meticulousness of a watchmaker.
His preparation in the years leading up to these Games was more haphazard. Phelps acknowledged that there were days when he glided into the wall at practices. “And that came out at the moment I needed it the most,” Phelps said, מוסיף: “I’m not going to sit and make excuses. Those lazy finishes were decisions I made.”
Le Clos consciously decided to try to become a champion swimmer after watching Phelps’s six-gold, two-bronze showing at the Athens Games in 2004. Four years later, he remembers watching Phelps’s narrow victory over Cavic in Beijing. He said he had clips of the race in seven languages on his computer. It stunned him to think he had put together a race against Phelps that is destined to be a YouTube classic.
“It’s been a dream of mine ever since I was a little boy to race Phelps in the final and now I’ve beaten him,” Le Clos said. “I can’t believe it.”
הוא הוסיף: “Phelps is my hero and I love the guy. To beat him, I can’t believe it. You don’t understand what this means to me. This is the greatest moment of my life.”
Le Clos has watched endless hours of video of Phelps, and as he made the turn for home Tuesday, he described having an out-of-body experience in which he pictured himself winning the race as Phelps.
“It sounds crazy,"הוא אמר, “but I actually thought I was Michael on the last turn. The last 25 meters it actually came in slow-mo.”
It’s not crazy at all. It’s what happens when a once-in-a-lifetime athlete comes along and inspires the next generation.
“Of course. I’m his biggest fan,” Le Clos said, מוסיף: “The legacy he’s left behind in swimming is fantastic. Even in South Africa, everybody knows Michael Phelps.”