I am too young (imagine that) to have seen Jesse Owens, Babe Didrikson, Nadia Comaneci, and Mark Spitz make Olympic history, and I don’t readily recall Mary Lou Retton (I was only 6). But, years from now when someone asks me what my greatest memories are of the Summer Olympic Games, I will tell them about Shannon Miller and the balance beam. I will tell them about Kerri Strug and The Vault. I will tell them about Michael Johnson and his gold shoes. I will tell them about Gary Hall, Jr. and his back to back Olympic reign as the fastest male swimmer all while battling diabetes. I will tell them about Carl Lewis, period. I will tell them about Greg Louganis who won two gold medals in diving after hitting his head on the springboard during preliminaries complete with concussion and stitches. I will tell them about the original Dream Team. I will tell them about Derek Redmond whose father helped him finish the 400-meter semifinals after Derek tore his hamstring roughly half way through the race. I will tell them about Flo-Jo’s nails and the 100m dash and her sister-in-law Jackie Joyner-Kersee and her two golds in the heptathlon. And, I will tell them about Michael Phelps.
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I carried a little piece of paper in my blackberry holder this week with all his events listed on it with space to list his times for his heat, semifinal, and final in each event. He swam 17 times in 9 days over a total distance of 3300 meters (a little over 2 miles) in a total elapsed time of 31 minutes 16.73 seconds (for the relays only his time and distance are included). The first verse of the National Anthem was played 7.94 times (the first time they cut off the music after “land of the free”) for a medal ceremony in which Michael had a gold medal draped around his neck. Let’s put that in perspective. In any given regular season of the NFL, a team hears the National Anthem played 16 times. For that team, 8 of those times (or half) are at home. So, basically the same number of times that say Vince Young will hear the National Anthem played in the next 4 months during the regular season at LP field in Nashville, TN is the same number of times Michael heard the anthem between August 10th and August 17th while standing on the top step of the medal podium.
I know the arguments will go on forever about whether or not he is the greatest Olympian of all time or even the greatest athlete. Shockingly, I stand on the side of him NOT being the greatest Olympian of all time because it’s too subjective when you cross sports. I don’t think there is one greatest Olympian. Some sports don’t even offer the opportunity to win 8 gold medals. I do believe that at this moment he is the greatest swimmer of all time, and quite frankly I think the only individual who will top these 8 gold medals would be a Michael Phelps coached swimmer. For the time being, this is a great story and a great memory. Over those 9 days he broke 7 world records and 1 Olympic record in the medal races. In every event, his semifinal was faster than or equal to his heat (with the exception of the 100-meter fly) and his final was always faster than both. Incidentally, I realized that the Sports Illustrated cover he was on last week hit newsstands on Friday in the US, the same day he swam that 100-meter fly. So, 8 gold medals won, 7 world records set, 1 Olympic record set, and 1 SI cover jinx conquered. As of roughly 11am this morning, for this Olympiad, Michael is tied with South Korea and Japan for number of gold medals and is tied with Romania, Poland, Kenya, New Zealand, and Kazakhstan for number of total medals. If you take Michael’s medals out of the US total, China is leading the Medal Count by 5.
However, he didn’t do this alone. He has Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones, Jason Lezak (especially), Nathan Adrian, Matt Grevers, Benjamin Wildman-Tobriner, Ryan Lochte, Ricky Berens, Peter Vanderkaay, David Walters, Erik Vendy, Klete Keller, Aaron Peirsol, Brendan Hansen, Mark Gangloff, and Ian Crocker to thank for the three relay gold medals as each of them either swam the qualifying heat and/or the final for the US relay team in the 4×100 and 4×200 free and 4×100 medley. I have read a lot about how this is the Phelps Era and that the Olympic field would be a lot different if he weren’t competing. So, I’d like to take a moment and recognize Alessio Boggiatto (Italy), Jean Basson (South Africa), Moss Burmester (New Zealand), Thiago Pereira (Brazil), Ian Crocker (US), and the relay teams of Italy (twice) and Russia. Those are all the swimmers that finished 4th in the races Michael Phelps or the US relay team won. If you take Michael and the US out of the equation, these people win bronze. Furthermore, Laszlo Cseh of Hungary (who was a joy to watch) stood next to Michael with a silver medal three times and can probably hum the US National Anthem for you. Also three times of the eight, a US swimmer stood on the bronze medal stand.
In the end, this is one of the best Olympic feats of all time. He won by large margins leaving his competitors in the wake of his splash. He won by small margins giving the Omega timekeepers a workout. He won with his teammates and cheered them on every step of the way. He won alone with only his stroke count and Lil Wayne in his head. He won with his eyes closed. He won with a smile. He won with disgust. He won with excitement and screams. He won eating 12,000 calories a day. He won using every muscle in his body churning at unfathomable rates. He won for himself. He won for his family. He won for his coach. He won for his teammates. He won for his sport. He won for his country.
I’m sure this list of memories will grow, but for now when someone asks me what I remember from my lifetime of Summer Olympic Games, I will tell them about Shannon, Kerri, Michael (Johnson), Gary, Carl, Greg, The Dream Team, Derek, Flo-Jo, Jackie, and Michael (Phelps). I’ve taken that piece of paper out of my blackberry holder, but I can’t bear to throw it away. It’s sitting on my desk as I type this reminding me that dreams, no matter how big or seemingly impossible, can come true.