Al Oerter won the discus four Olympics in a row. I asked him a few years back which of those was the sweetest, and he said without hesitation that it was the last one, in 1968, in Mexico City, when he was injured and, for his sport, old.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because," he said, "that was the one nobody thought I could win."
Michael Phelps has more Olympic medals than anyone ever. He has more Olympic golds than anyone ever. He has done things that have scrambled the brain -- first, in 2004, winning eight medals in one Olympics (something no one had done in a non-boycotted Games), and then, because that did not seem impressive enough, winning eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008. He has dominated races and won others by the outstretched tips of his fingers. He has won under the most intense pressure.
You get the feeling that someday, when he looks back on it all, Thursday's victory in the 200-meter individual medley might be the one he remembers with the most pride.
This was the race Phelps was not supposed to win. He's proved at these Olympics that he's still an amazing swimmer, but he's not quite the same. He did not medal in the 400-meter individual medley -- the first time since he was 15 that he did not medal in an Olympic event. He was edged out in the 200-meter butterfly, and Phelps had owned that event the way Ray Charles owned the song Georgia On My Mind.
Anyway, the 200 IM was supposed to be Ryan Lochte's event.
Phelps knew that if he was going to have any chance to win the race, he would have to grab it right away, in the opening 50 meters of butterfly. Phelps is the best butterfly swimmer of all time. After the butterfly, the advantage would swing to Lochte, who is better in the backstroke and the breaststroke. Phelps' strategy had to be -- and was -- to go out as fast as he could and make do with what he had left at the end.
He went out blazingly fast. He took the lead immediately. It was an all-out blitz. Lochte never stood a chance. Phelps kept that lead through the backstroke, through the breaststroke, and even seemed to build it. After he made his final turn, Phelps was ahead of the world-record pace. This was Phelps as he had been in Beijing, as he had been in Athens, the greatest swimmer of all. He touched the wall in 1:54.27 -- just four-hundreths of a second slower than his time when he won the gold medal in Beijing. Lochte was a distant second, at least by swimming terms.
What had Phelps done? This was his 20th medal and his 16th gold, both records. But those are just numbers. He became the first man to win the same swimming event in three consecutive Olympics. But that is just another record.
No, what happened here was something different, something that in a career of unprecedented achievement is hard to describe. And, sure enough, Phelps had a hard time explaining it.
Two expressions might have told the story better than his words. The first expression came in the instant when Phelps realized he had won, just after he touched the wall and looked at the scoreboard. There was no splash of victory, no wild-armed celebration. He looked, well, dumbfounded. The second expression came on the medal stand, where tears were building in his eyes.
He's been surprising the world for years. It's possible, just possible, that Thursday night, Michael Phelps surprised himself.
Joe Posnanski is a senior columnist for Sports on Earth, a joint venture between the USA TODAY Sports Media Group and MLB Advanced Media. Follow Joe in USA TODAY during the Games and visit SportsOnEarthblog.com.
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