The only thing I remember about the 2008 Olympics is yelling GO! GO! GO! at a stranger’s television in San Francisco. I was at the apartment of a friend of the guy I was dating, and I suppose that friend was nice because I’d probably remember if she wasn’t. In truth, the only thing I can recall is that she had a couch and a TV. She lived in a sort of bungalow over Baker Beach, smack-dab on the Pacific Ocean, which you might think sounds lovely and summery and like a good place to spend A Nice Day With People You Don’t Know. But in San Francisco, that means cold and wet and fog and the frantic zipping-up of fleeces, especially in August.
So we were there, sitting on this woman’s couch, and the Beijing Olympics were on. Michael Phelps, American hero, who the day before had tied Mark Spitz’s all-time record of seven gold medals in a single games, was about to go for no. 8. There are rare moments of appointment television that everyone says you’ll want to see for posterity, so that you can tell your kids about them — not kids anytime soon, of course, and especially not kids that may result from couples sitting or not sitting on this couch, ha ha, let’s all not make eye contact for a minute — and this was one. When Phelps dove in, as the U.S. team’s third leg in the 4x100-meter medley relay, hope was pretty much lost: Brendan Hansen and Aaron Peirsol had fallen off a little, so, by the time Phelps hit the water, the U.S. was trailing Japan and Australia.
You know how this ends: Phelps shooting himself forward, inhumanly long arms raking, so that as he finished his turn and closed out the second portion of his swim, he was an entire head’s length beyond his competitors, surging up and down, a world-record 50.1-second split. Teammate Jason Lezak, secure now with a half-second lead, sealed the deal. And anyway, I’ve never cared about swimming — my own swimming ability topped out at “can float and is briefly able to survive” — but my god. Screw you, Serbia, whose Milorad Cavic said the day before that it would be “good” if Phelps missed out on breaking the record. Screw you, Japan and Australia, for daring to make this close. Screw the whole dang world. Phelps, we knew for certain, was the best. He was the most incredible swimmer the world had ever seen.
And now he has qualified for his fifth Olympic Games, the most ever for a male American swimmer. He competed in his first, in 2000, at age 15; when he marches into the Maracanã with Rio’s American delegation in five weeks, he will be 31. He has won 22 Olympic medals, 18 of them gold. He is the world-record holder in five races, a seven-time World Swimmer of the Year, and a 10-time American Swimmer of the Year. He is the most decorated Olympian ever and will go down as the greatest American Olympian of his — of our — generation.
It’s not quite right to say that Phelps is in decline: He has continued to add to his collection of titles, most recently with another trio at December’s Winter National Championships. With a time of 1:54.84, he won Wednesday’s 200-meter butterfly trials outright. But he has struggled, in Phelpsian terms if nothing else, and it’s a given that this will be his last visit to the games. He has been pragmatic about the upcoming competition, telling reporters after qualifying that he is just happy to go. “I haven’t felt great in the water,” he said, “but like I said, I’m checking a box off, being able to get on the team.”
Phelps, of course, could never have the prolonged farewell tour of Kobe Bryant or Derek Jeter even if he wanted to — the ferociously numerical nature of swimming, where each millisecond of slippage is recorded and blown up in flashing lights, would never allow it. But the most iconic Olympian of a generation is going to get some extra time in the spotlight.
In Rio, we will see a different Phelps than the one we saw in London in 2012, and certainly than the one who electrified a gray living room in San Francisco eight years ago. He retired and then unretired; he was photographed smoking a bong in 2009; he was pulled over for going 84 mph in a 45-mph zone and arrested for drunk driving; he went to rehab; he spent time in what he has described as “a really dark place.”
In speaking of his longevity — of the sheer preposterousness of his achievements — consider this: His 2-month-old son, Boomer, is closer to Phelps’s age at his first Olympics than Phelps is now.
So find a couch, somewhere. You’ll want to tell your kids about this one.