Nineteen say that again, nineteen Olympic medals. All won by one man unlike any other. It simply defies belief. Imagine the space that much heavy metal takes up. Even more unimaginable is the effort it took to get them.
No one could disagree with the bedsheet unfurled by fans in the crowd that said - “PHELPS GREATEST OLYMPIAN EVER.”
So thank you, Michael. Thanks for another milestone in human history. The simple words “Olympic record” didn’t quite do justice to the achievement, which Phelps sealed and delivered in London, but which really was a monument to a lifetime of dedication to the goal of being the best one can be.
Sounds so simple. It’s anything but.
For the first time in all of the hundreds of races he has swum, Phelps said he smiled to himself underwater in the last 20 metres of the 4x200m freestyle relay on Tuesday night that got him the medal it was gold, yet another one he needed to become the first Olympian in history with 19 medals.
“It shows that hard work does pay off,” he said.
Trying to understand what it must feel like to be Phelps is beyond us. But those words of wisdom seemingly so obvious, but so hard to actually execute we could grasp.
Fifteen golds, two silvers and two bronze accumulated at three Olympics and who knows? Perhaps as many as three medals more to come in London before the most successful swimmer ever gets on with the rest of his life, seeing for himself that there is more to the world than pools and hotel rooms.
So Phelps is a history-maker, has been since he was a teen. And with the years, the history grew only bigger.
But history’s best athlete ever?
People will say so. They’ll point to the medals, the world records, the memorable swims in Athens, Beijing and now London that more often than not ended with the playing of the “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
But there have been so many fabulous Olympians that to single out one, even one as unique as Phelps, suggests the others weren’t so great in their own way.
Greatness isn’t measured in medals alone.
Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis and the indefatigable Paavo Nurmi, who won the 1,500m, caught his breath and then lined up 55 minutes later to win the 5,000 all on one day in 1924.
They were all pretty great.
So, too, was George Eyser, the American gymnast who won three golds, two silvers and one bronze at the 1904 Olympics with a wooden left leg, which replaced the one amputated after he was run over by a train.
And Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian Imperial guardsman, who won the 1960 Rome marathon running barefoot.
Or Lis Hartel, the Danish rider, who despite being paralysed by polio below the knees and having to be helped on and off her horse, Jubilee, won silver in dressage in 1952 and again in 1956.
And on and on.
You get the picture.
There’s a whole human history born from the games.
Phelps is part of it, but not all of it.
But because he came back and completed the job in London that he started in Athens, he is a bigger part of that history than most.
“This has been an amazing ride,” he said.
For us all.