I was wrong.
There, I said it. I’m man enough to admit it. I’m human enough to admit it.
I was wrong. 100 percent. Not even close to correct. W-R-O-N-G. No way around the bush.I wrote on Friday, and I quote:
Sure, Michael Phelps’s quest for eight gold medals is nice, but I’d rather watch the other events. That is where the truly memorable stories are, at least for me.
Boy was I wrong. I missed that one by a country mile.
Michael Phelps is the story of this Olympic games, if not two days ago, then at least now.
At least after he out-touched Serbia’s Milorad Cavic by 0.01 seconds, the slimmest possible non-dead heat margin.
At least after he blew by Japan’s Takuro Fujii in the third leg of the 4 x 100 medley relay on his way to a record-setting eighth gold of this Olympiad and record-tying seventh gold medal-winning world record of this Olympiad.
At least after he proved himself a champion this Beijing morning.
When I think of all the sporting moments that I remember, very few do I immediately recall where I was when it happened.
I remember sitting in bed next to my father and my brother when the Florida Marlins won the World Series in 1997, more tired than I was excited after 11 innings of a sport I knew little about. Only later did it dawn on me what that meant.
I remember falling to the ground in agony after the University of Florida failed on its two-point attempt against Tennessee in Dec. 2001 with a trip to the SEC Championship Game and, quite possibly, BCS National Championship Game in the balance. The den in my father and step-mother’s house shifted as I thudded to the ground. I can still feel the sharp pain in my elbow from the contact.
I remember jumping and screaming, probably kicking too, when Appalachian State blocked Michigan’s potential game-winning field goal in Ann Arbor, Mich. on the first day of September in 2007. My Appalachian State wrestling shirt shivering, Ohio State and Michigan State fans mobbing me as if I was the one who blocked the kick, as if I beat Michigan.
And I will remember Michael Phelps.
To be honest, as interested as I was in 2004, I cannot recall anything about any of Phelps’s six golds or two bronzes in those games. Nothing.
I don’t remember how close the races were, how much luck might have been involved, where I was or what was going through my mind.
But now, this I will never forget.
This I can never forget.
First, there was the silence of the 4 x 100 freestyle relay.
I was not cheering; I was not yelling; I was not clapping.
No, I was staring in complete shock, complete disbelief.
There is no way Jason Lezak can close this gap. I can’t be seeing this right. This must, it must. No way.
Immediately after the race, I instant messaged my friend the painfully obvious, “wow.” She responded the same. Neither of us could writing anything for another five minutes.
Second, there was the stalled roar of the 100-metre butterfly.
I was in the same sports bar as I was for Appalachian State, although at a different table. The place was deafeningly quiet. Then the “1” popped up next to Phelps’s name.
Phelps could not believe it. His mother could not believe. I could not believe it.
I still do not.
It was just unreal, as cliché as that sounds. Unreal.
Unreal, unreal, unreal.
Even now I am shaking my head.
Even now I feel Michael Phelps splashing the water in disbelief.
Even now I am catching his mother as she faints.
We all are.
Finally, there was the extended applause of the 4 x 100 medley relay.
From the time Michael Phelps surged to the lead by the turn in his leg, the butterfly, you could just feel that it was destiny. You knew Japan could not keep up and you just knew that Jason Lezak would not let Eamon Sullivan of Australia by.
Again at the sports bar, again a different scene.
Through Lezak’s entire swim, there were moments of applause. Everyone in unison.
There must have been a tick in everyone’s minds as each person knew when to clap, knew how long to clap for, and then when to stop before picking it up again. It was a universal recognition.
And that is exactly when it hit me: even if I live long enough to see Michael Phelps’s mark of eight gold medals equalled or surpassed, even if it happens in London in 2012, this moment is something that will be with me forever.
This moment of complete unity, of one nation applauding, no care for anything else, together, black and white, young and old, alien and born citizen, you name it- this moment of pride was so complete, so unique that no story could top it.
Not Mongolia getting its first-ever gold medal; not some guy on Lesotho lifting up his opponent in respect of what his opponent had accomplished; not some woman lifting a personal best with nothing but heart to compete for.
None of those stories can even attempt to come close. Not even if I knew each of those competitors since the day they were born.
Sure, they might be headlines in Mongolia or Lesotho or Chile, but not anywhere else. Do you think the United States is the only place that recognizes Michael Phelps?
I wanted to tell three great stories, and I did, but I was wrong to call them the true stories of the XXIXth Olympiad. W-R-O-N-G.
No, Michael Phelps was and is the story of these games and he will be what I remember. Not just his accomplishments, but where I was when he achieved them.
That is what sets him apart- by a country mile.
That is what will keep him there until I die.