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Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky and the Art of Holding On

This is what greatness looks like

Getty Images
Getty Images

Another two races, another pair of golds, another electrified audience left in awe, another day at the office. Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky are stuffing so much athletic greatness into such a compressed span of time in these games (a combined five golds and one silver in five days) it’s turning Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan, and Draymond Green into phone-filming fanboys, and it’s leaving the rest of us desperately Google Image searching goats. We’re just floating in their wake.

There’s a paradox at the heart of our on-again-off-again, tape-delayed, time-shifted, no-spoilers-but-sure-spoilers love affair with the Olympics: These are people making the possible look entirely impossible. Everybody runs, jumps, swims; everyone races. A lot of us have even played volleyball. But then you watch people like Ledecky and Phelps, and you don’t recognize those basic activities at all. They’re aliens, making their quadrennial visit to Earth, and the Olympic Games are our close encounters.

On Tuesday night, Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky won gold medals in the men’s 200-meter butterfly and the women’s 200-meter freestyle, respectively — Phelps would win another gold on Tuesday, as part of the men’s 4x200 freestyle relay — and in similar fashions: They took leads and held on to them.

Ledecky spent half of her race trailing the Australian Emma McKeon, who was the pacesetter for the first 100 meters. After the second turn, Ledecky inched ahead of the Aussie and never relinquished the lead, despite Sweden’s Sarah Sjöström — a more accomplished sprinter — breathing down her neck. Right here, in the home stretch. Ledecky was just like, “Nah.”

NBC
NBC

Ledecky took the lead at the most opportune time, moving past the early leader and holding off the latecomer. Phelps’s “nah” moment came a little earlier:

NBC
NBC

He was probably listening to a screwed-and-chopped version of Mount Vesuvius erupting. This race got close toward the end, with South African Chad le Clos close enough to get an up-close look at Phelps’s cupping treatments, but when you look at Phelps’s face there — a slightly tamer version of Phelps Face, itself the inverse of Crying Jordan — it’s hard to imagine any swimmer, much less a Great White Shark or nuclear submarine, beating him in a race.

A quick note about swimming butterfly: You know how everything seems fun and easy and light and weightless in the water? That’s true, except for butterfly. Butterfly is like throwing tires in an atmosphere that is 85 percent mud. You do it for five strokes, and you think your heart is going to explode and your back is going to break and your rotator cuffs are going to shred. Degrees of difficulty are all relative, but just know that Michael Phelps was digging for fire. And he was going up against people who were younger and had less to lose. And he finger wagged on their souls.

Fans of basketball, football, baseball, and even soccer are conditioned to expect runs. We all know the “here they come” moment when we see it. It’s Klay Thompson heating up from outside, or Aaron Rodgers down 17 in the third quarter, playing with the restrictor plate ripped off. Comebacks create headlines and engage our hearts, but taking a lead and holding on? That is where you get into real “greatness is being forged in front of me” territory.

Forget whether they were favorites, whether it wasn’t their preferred distance or preferred pace or preferred stroke. Forget age. Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky fought the water, and they won. They did exactly what we expected of them. They forged.

An earlier version of this post misstated Chad le Clos’s nationality. He is South African, not Brazilian.