Can you really smile while you’re swimming? Most of us, I’d imagine, would fill our ducts with rivers of chlorine. But Michael Phelps, who has gills for something, has no problem grinning in the pool. With about 20 m left in the 4 x 200-m freestyle relay in London on Tuesday night, Phelps knew he had it: he was about to win a gold medal, the 19th Olympic medal of his career, breaking the record held by former Soviet Union gymnast Larisa Latynina. “I started smiling,” Phelps says. “I don’t think I’ve ever done that in a race before.”
He had good reason. After Beijing, what more could Phelps accomplish in the pool? Phelps was never going to win eight gold medals in London; after he spent part of the past four years, by his own admission, slacking off, it was clear he had no great desire to repeat Beijing. “In the pool, we’ve done the work,” says Phelps. “And sometimes not done the work.” But he still didn’t own one honorific, that of the most decorated Olympian of all time. He needed three more pieces of hardware.
Few people, over the past four years, talked much about this final
milestone. Phelps’ own family was in the dark. Until this year, says
Phelps’ sister Hilary, “we didn’t even know about the record. It didn’t
register on our radar that he was three away from being the greatest
Olympian of all time.” So there’s no doubt he’s the best now, right?
Hillary shrugs, which says it all. “He’s the greatest ever, you know,”