Defeat spurs Phelps to even greater feats

Published : Aug 15, 2009 00:00 IST

Responding to rare setbacks is the key hallmark of the Olympian's greatness - and the swimming pool in Rome witnessed just that. By Andy Bull.

Defeat was the best thing that could have happened to Michael Phelps. And Phelps losing was the best thing that could have happened to the World Championships in Rome.

Paul Biedermann's victory in the 200m freestyle changed the course of the entire week. It set the championships alight. And Phelps's response made for one of the most compelling pieces of sport I have ever been lucky enough to see. Watching him swim over the next five days was a privilege.

I've had a lingering headache since I saw him beat Milorad Cavic in the 100m butterfly. My mind has been boggled ever since.

To start with, we ahve to go back 12 days. When Phelps arrived he felt bigger than his sport. No man is bigger than the team? Phelps was bigger than his entire profession. He defines the coverage, and transcends the passionate but parochial swimming community. He had his own press conference. Hundreds of people came. Beforehand the United States team scheduled a 30-minute conference with Ryan Lochte, Dara Torres and Aaron Peirsol. They have 25 Olympic medals between them, and they left 15 minutes early because no one had any questions.

They were all there for Phelps. When Phelps came to Rome he was 10 months down from the mountaintop. Six of those had been spent on one of the hardest-earned holidays imaginable. He could have skipped this meeting - it's not uncommon after an Olympic year. Ian Thorpe sat out Montreal 2005 after winning four medals in Athens. As Britain's Rebecca Adlington said: "There's nothing like the Olympics, and I guess there has been a bit of a comedown."

His main reason for coming was, he said, that his mum "really wanted to see Rome. I told her I'd just fly her out here, but she said she wanted to see me swim here too".

After eight golds, that is slender motivation indeed. In 2008 I was foolish enough to doubt Phelps. Or rather, doubt his ambitions. I had too much respect for the records. Eight golds in one Games looked impossible. He may as well have been trying to clear out the Augean Stables.

People who have not watched enough swimming will say that there are "too many events" and "too many distances". They will suggest that Phelps's wins are easier to come by than those in other sports. Yet, each stroke is as different as the jumps are from the sprints in athletics, and each distance he competes at only increases the number of opponents he has to beat.

I wasn't the only doubter. Ian Thorpe was another. "I don't think he will do it, but I'd love to see it," he said. "There's a thing called competition. It won't just be one athlete that is competing." Thorpe was exactly right about that. Swimming is brutally competitive. Where he went wrong was in thinking that the ferocity of the competition would stop Phelps rather than spur him on.

Phelps wants to know he can be beaten. He thrives on that feeling. He has said as much over and over again: "I love doubters. I love all doubters. I welcome all comments. I love my competitors. The faster they swim, the quicker I go."

There are innumerable reasons why Phelps is the sportsman he is, but few define him as much as his ability to use his opponents' success to inspire him to greater achievements. "Bring it" is one of his watchwords. When it matters he "brings it" like no one else in sport.

Before Rome, it seemed he had forgotten what it meant to lose. He had not come second in a major final in four years. He had lain waste to his rivals in Beijing. He almost seemed bored because there was nothing left to conquer. Very few people genuinely thought Phelps might lose.

And while he may not admit it, I'll wager he did not think it either. In Rome, I stood in the mixed zone listening to Phelps just after he had climbed out of the pool after winning his 200m semifinal. He turned away while talking to watch Biedermann's semifinal on a nearby TV screen. As he watched the German break his championship record, Phelps's face contorted into both a sneer and a frown. I saw disbelief, scorn, and shock.

The next night, of course, Phelps lost the gold to Biedermann. The 200m freestyle has always been a tough race for Phelps. In his autobiography, `No Limits', Phelps tells a story from when he was 12. "A kid from Delaware beat me in a 200m freestyle race. This would have been just the sort of thing that typically would have sparked a firstclass goggles-throwing tantrum. Instead I felt the burn inside, then let the emotion carry me through my next swims. At that meet, I had five more events. I won all five."

After he lost to Biedermann, he had four more events. He won all four. It was also the 200m freestyle that cost him his shot at seven golds in Athens, when he was beaten into bronze by Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband.

"That loss," he has said since, "has to be looked at as a - maybe the - defining race of my career. I stepped up and raced the best. I found out I was good, but not good enough. I had work to do."

But biedermann was no Thorpe. Some people thought, and some headlines suggested, that Phelps's response to the defeat was to threaten to quit swimming until FINA banned the new polyurethane swimsuits. It wasn't. That was the reaction of Bob Bowman, Phelps's long-serving coach. "Bob decides my schedules," was all Phelps said.

Phelps's reaction was not apparent until the next night, when he obliterated the field in the 200m butterfly, broke his own world record and took gold. He had remembered what it was like to lose. He did not seem bigger than swimming any more. It was a champion's reaction.

By his own standards Phelps was not in the best racing shape. He swam 9,000 miles in the four years before Beijing. Here he had been training for only three months.

On top of whcih Bowman's comments meant that in the 200m final Phelps was perceived as being in a race against suits as well as swimmers.

Like Adlington, Phelps was handicapped by his Speedo sponsorship, and his loyalty to its LZR suit. Only five of the championship's 43 world records fell to swimmers wearing LZRs. The psychological impact of that hindered Adlington badly, as the Great Britain head coach, Dennis Pursley, admitted afterwards. But it only made Phelps stronger.

He said afterwards that he had planned to use an LZR bodysuit for that race, but had mistakenly picked up one that was too worn-in. Bowman told him simply to swim in jammers - knee-length trunks. "But I haven't shaved my chest," Phelps said. "Doesn't matter," Bowman replied.

His next event, though, the 100m butterfly, was about more than the suits. It was also about Cavic. THE 25-YEAR-OLD SWIMS for Serbia, but grew up in America and spent three years studying at Berkley. Cavic is the man who said in Beijing that he "would love to be the guy who is remembered for stopping Phelps winning all eight" and then announced that he was "the only guy at the Olympics who had a real shot at beating Phelps one-on-one".

In Beijing he came within a single hundredth of a second of doing that, a margin so small as to be almost beyond comprehension. He was so close, in fact, that the referee had to use a video review shot at 10,000 frames per second to confirm it.

Cavic is still not convinced. "I did touch the wall first," he said during his first press conference of the world championships. Then, after the heats, he indulged in a little more eloquent trash-talking. "I know Phelps is making a lot of money from Speedo. It's loyalty. But throughout all my experiences, I've learned this - free will is a gift with a price tag, and whatever you choose to do you're going to pay, but how much you're going to pay is really dependent on you." That was before he had offered to buy Phelps a new suit.

As those quotes suggest, Cavic's public persona is charming and intriguing in a way that Phelps never has been or will be. Phelps can be hard to like. He is irksomely unabashed in his patriotism and, unsurprisingly given what he has had to do to get were he is, can seem a little narrow-minded. In `No Limits' he reveals he suffered culture shock in Beijing: "It was one of those cultural moments. There was no brown sugar for the oatmeal. I used white sugar. No excuses."

He can also be as truculent as a teenager. After collecting his gold for the 200m butterfly, Phelps didn't bother turning up for the mandatory post-ceremony press conference. Instead he climbed into the diving pool and floated about on his back, rolling around in the water like a holidaymaker in the sea.

He did that for 25 minutes, not warming down - his race had been an hour earlier - but lolling about. Two hundred journalists were going nuts, and a legion of humiliated FINA officials were running about flapping.

No one would ask Phelps to get out of the pool. They even put Federica Pellegrini's press conference back.

I wondered if he was making a point to FINA, or his fellow competitors, but seeing his obvious embarrassment at what he had done afterwards, I decided he simply preferred to be in the water than in the room answering the questions. When he did come in, he watched the swimming on TV while he spoke.

"The pool," Phelps has said, "is a safe haven. Two walls at either end, lane lines on either side, and a black stripe on the bottom for direction." Back in that initial press conference he was asked about his relationship with Bowman. "Things haven't changed between me and Bob," he said. "He still treats me like I'm a 15-year-old."

"That's because," Bowman shot straight back, "you still act like a 15-year-old."

After athens 2004 there was the drink-driving arrest, and this year there was the pot smoking. The only man in history to have won 14 Olympic gold medals did not know how to use a washing machine until he was 20. He flooded his kitchen after putting hand soap in the detergent draw. He got so confused when his smoke alarm started beeping that he rang Bowman to ask what to do.

"Have you changed the batteries?""You mean I have to do that?"

Phelps is a far cry from the intelligent, articulate Cavic.

And yet none of this matters a damn. Just as Phelps had said he would, Cavic destroyed him over the first 50m of the final. Phelps turned in fourth place, down near Cavic's hips. And then Phelps attacked. He attacked as hard as he could. Butterfly was a poor description for this. It was more pterodactyl. Phelps thundered through the water like some ancient beast, his 6ft 7in span arms swooping up out of the water and clawing him forward.

That night Cavic, in his Arena X-Glide swimsuit, became the second man in history to swim under 50 seconds for the 100m butterfly. The first, 0.13sec ahead of him, was Phelps.

That defeat to biedermann will also come to be seen as one of the defining races of Phelps's career. Losing did not make Phelps more vulnerable, it just made him stronger, quicker, and better. It might spur him all the way to London 2012 so he can show again and again and again that he is the best competitor on the planet. As far as I can see there is Phelps, Federer, Woods and daylight. No one else comes close.

Because in the pool, when the first man to the wall wins gold, and the crowd have been pulled to their feet and don't even know how loud they're screaming, when he needs to go faster than he has ever gone before to win, he "brings it". And Phelps "bringing it" is one of the finest things you will ever see.

More stories from this issue

Sign in to unlock all user benefits
  • Get notified on top games and events
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign up / manage to our newsletters with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early bird access to discounts & offers to our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment