Friday, August 3, 2012

Behold my complete lack of surprise.

[First of all, I was wrong about the suits.]

Four years ago I tore apart a Jay Mariotti article that was ostensibly about Matt Grevers but was actually a thinly-veiled attack on Michael Phelps. A couple days later, he was fired. Because post hoc ergo propter hoc isn't really a logical fallacy, watch out, Joe Posnanski! I'm comin' after you!

Anyone who has become my friend since August of 2005 is baffled to find out that during the Olympics, I don't watch baseball. Everyone who has known me since before August of 2005 just nods and says, "yes, of course, this is Skye and these are the Olympics. It would be silly to expect her to do anything but devote 20 hours of her life every day to watching them."

And in particular, it's swimming. My first Olympic memory is from 1992, Pablo Morales swimming the 100m fly. I hardly remember much about it at all, just him standing at the block and then the camera following them down and back across this beautiful, sparkling outdoor pool. It wasn't until 8 years later that I made the decision to be a competitive swimmer myself, but Pablo's swim will always be first in my mind.

I just wanted to give you a little background so you could fully grasp my dedication to the Olympics, swimming specifically. I don't just follow this sport once every four years like most of America. For eight years I lived this sport and literally breathed chlorine. I've been out of the water for three years, but I've still kept up with the international swimming world.

Hopefully my investment in this sport goes far enough to show you why this article I'm about to dissect is so offensive to me. I'm not an elitist snob, I'm not telling anyone to "get off my yard" or stop covering the sport or anything like that. All I'm asking is that if you decide to write an article about swimming, get it right.

Joe Posnanski published "A Sweet Surprise, Even For Phelps" this morning. After tweeting him angrily about calling Michael Phelps old on Saturday, I decided I needed to go further on this one. Here we go:
LONDON — Al Oerter won the discus four Olympics in a row. I asked him a few years back which of those was the sweetest, and he said without hesitation that it was the last one, in 1968, in Mexico City, when he was injured and, for his sport, old. 
“Why?” I asked. 
“Because,” he said, “that was the one nobody thought I could win.”
Oh. I know where this is going.
Michael Phelps has more Olympic medals than anyone. He has more Olympic golds than anyone. He has done things that have scrambled the brain — first, in 2004, winning eight medals in one Olympics (something no one had done in a non-boycotted Games), and then, because that did not seem impressive enough, winning eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008. He has dominated races and won others by the outstretched tips of his fingers. He has won under the most intense international pressure and with his mother watching from the crowd.
 True, true, true, true, true, true, true, why are we talking about his mom?
You get the feeling that someday, when he looks back on it all, Thursday’s victory in the 200-meter individual medley might be the one he remembers with the most pride.
Yeah, that's possible. I think it might be Beijing's 4x100m free relay, though. Or maybe London's 4x200m free relay? I dunno, we'll have to ask Mike in a few years.
This was the race Phelps was not supposed to win.
WHOA. But okay, I can see that. Ryan Lochte has been pretty badass about that 200IM, polysuits or no.
He’s proven at these Olympics that he’s still an amazing swimmer … but he’s not quite the same. He did not medal in the 400-meter individual medley — the first time since he was 15 that he did not medal in an Olympic event. He was edged out in the 200-meter butterfly, and Phelps had owned that event the way Ray Charles owned the song “Georgia on My Mind.”
I will just note here that the 400IM was a race for which he had trained only 9 months. That might seem like a long time to you, but it's not. The 200 fly was just ... I don't even know. Chad le Clos was spectacular, we'll just say that.
Anyway, the 200 IM was Ryan Lochte’s event. Lochte broke Phelps’ world record in the event three years ago, and then for good measure he broke it again. Lochte won the 200 IM at the 2009 World Championships and 2011 World Championships, and he qualified with the fastest time. The question going into this race did not seem to be if Phelps could beat Lochte, but if Phelps could medal at all.
True, true, true, true, true, wait WHAT.
The question going into this race did not seem to be if Phelps could beat Lochte, but if Phelps could medal at all.
Can I ask who in the world was asking this question in particular? Because EVERYTHING I read leading up to the heats, semifinals, and finals had it a toss-up for gold between Lochte and Phelps. There was never a question that Michael wouldn't medal. There was never a question that it wouldn't ultimately be a race between those two men. Yes, we talked about Brazil's Pereira. Yes, we talked about Japan's Matsuda. But the 200m IM is not the 400m IM and so why ---

Oh. I get it.

You thought the 200 IM is just like the 400 IM, just half as long, and since Michael didn't medal in the 4 that meant his shot at the 2 was somehow diminished and in jeopardy? Well, this kind of analysis is to be expected from someone who likely only keeps track of the sport for 8 days every four years. Why I have higher expectations of sports journalists, I'll never know. But I'll get further into that later, let's move on for now.
Maybe Phelps liked the doubts. Maybe he didn’t. Athletes are different about that sort of thing. I’ve always thought that some athletes (perhaps like Michael Jordan and Tom Brady) are driven by disrespect, real or imagined, while others (like perhaps Tiger Woods) enjoy being feared as the unequivocal best in their sport. Phelps? Who really knows? He has always kept his own motivations close, and his emotions closer.
 I thought it was pretty well-publicized that Michael had a newspaper clipping containing a quote from Ian Thorpe doubting that Michael could win 8 gold medals in one Games? Didn't we know that Michael thrives on people doubting him? "Who really knows"?

Having watched every single Olympic race in Michael's career, I can tell you that his face is pretty easy to read. What he hasn't done (until his last two medal wins, really) is talk about his emotions very well.
On Thursday, he did crack a little bit. He admitted that he spent some time thinking about how it is all winding down. He even talked with Lochte before the race about it being their last. Phelps knew that if he was going to have any chance to win the race, he would have to grab it right away, in the opening 50 meters of butterfly. Phelps is the best butterfly swimmer of all time. After the butterfly, the advantage would swing to Lochte, who is better in both the backstroke and breaststroke. Phelps’ strategy had to be — and was — to go out as fast as he could and make do with what he had left at the end. [emphasis mine]
Here I will direct you to and a post by SwimNerd because if there's one thing more ridiculous than Joe Posnanski writing about swimming, it's Joe Posnanski analyzing swimming. A line of note from Swimnerd for our purposes here:
Thus, I’m going to assume this first 50 is not what matters.  If you asked me 4 years ago, it’d probably be a different story because Phelps was such a better flyer at that point.
There you go.
He went out blazingly fast. He took the lead immediately. It was an all-out blitz. Lochte never stood a chance. Phelps kept that lead through the backstroke, through the breaststroke, even seemed to build it. After he made his final turn, Phelps was ahead of world-record pace. This was Phelps as he had been in Beijing, as he had been in Athens, the greatest swimmer of all time. He touched the wall at 1:54.27 — just four-hundredths of a second slower than his time when he won the gold medal in Beijing. Lochte was a distant second, at least by swimming terms.
I won't go into the details -- you can look at their 2011 World Championships splits on the previous link and the splits for yesterday's final here (Laszlo Cseh with hair is too much to handle) -- but .... Lochte did stand a chance. He's split faster than he went yesterday. If you're going to say he didn't stand a chance, maybe you should have acknowledged the fact that he was a half an hour removed from the 200m backstroke final. The key to which is, in Lochte's own words, "I don't know ... my legs hurt."

This was the Phelps who had trained for a whole Olympic cycle for the 200 IM. Like I mentioned before, he hadn't done that for the 400 IM, only allowing himself to get talked into it by Lochte himself with less than a year until London.

I wouldn't call a little more than half a second a "distant" second. Maybe in Michael Phelps terms it seems that way, but 2-3 seconds is generally considered a blowout. Lochte did run down Laszlo Cseh in that last 50 meters, which probably deserves some kind of mention.
What had Phelps done? This was his 20th medal and his 16th gold, both records. But those are just numbers. He became the first man to win the same swimming event at three straight Olympics. But that is just another record.
Yeah, actually, that's another number. I'm not sure what purpose this paragraph serves.
No, what happened here was something different, something that in a career of unprecedented achievement is hard to describe. And, sure enough, Phelps had a hard time explaining it. He talked about how proud he was to three-peat. He talked about how he wished he would have brought it home a little faster and broken the world record. He talked about how his career is almost over now — he has just the 100-meter butterfly and the 4 x 100-meter medley relay left. 
But two expressions might have told the story better than his words. The first expression came in the instant when Phelps realized that he had won, just after he touched the wall and looked back at the scoreboard. There was no splash of victory, no wild-armed celebration. He looked, well, dumbfounded.
The second expression came on the medal stand, where tears were building in his eyes. 
He has been surprising the world for years. It’s possible, just possible, that on Thursday night Michael Phelps surprised himself.
 I have never heard Michael talk so much in a poolside interview as after his 19th and 20th career medal wins. I think that it has something to do with accomplishing the final goal that we presume has been on his secret goal sheet since at least Beijing, if not forever. Maybe since he's finally done it, become the most decorated Olympian of all time, he is relieved of all the pressure. And everything else after that 19th medal is just icing on the cake. I don't think Michael was surprised that he won the 200 IM. Most of the swimming world would have been surprised had he not. I think the look we saw on his face was one of relief, recognition of that fulfillment of personal expectation.

But I don't know. I'm not in his head (and I really wouldn't want to be). All I can go on is the last 12 years of watching him race, in person and on television, and when the meets weren't broadcast watching the little bars advance across the screen at I remember in 2005 watching World Championships on a livestream from Hungary because that was the only video feed available. The lag was severe and the quality was poor, but that's how I saw Michael Phelps lose to Ian Crocker in the 100 fly.

His impending retirement didn't hit me until he'd started talking about how they were chronicling his "lasts" in the month leading up to the Olympics -- last Trials win, last double, last practice, last semi-final, and on Saturday, it will be his last race. Ever. We did that same chronicle our senior year on my college team. The freshmen made fun of us, but I remember saying, "This is out last first practice" and then, months later, "This is our last double." And then "our last race." That's when it hits you, when you realize that the moment you're experiencing doesn't get to happen again. No more first practices of the season. No more excitement after you complete your last morning practice, or qualify for your last final. It's over.

But this wasn't about Michael Phelps and his retirement. This was supposed to be about the mainstream media having no clue about swimming, just pretending to have one when the Olympics are on. Mr. Posnanski, leave the analysis up to the experts, the commentary up to the enthusiasts, and sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. Michael Phelps is still the favorite in the 100 fly. America is still the favorite in the 4x100 medley relay. Don't worry, after Saturday no one will expect you to write about the most decorated Olympian of all time, so you won't have to pretend to have a clue anymore. You're not fooling anyone anyway.

But at least you didn't call Michael Phelps slow.

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