RIO de JANEIRO — Anyone in any kind of relationship — so this means pretty much everyone in the world — knows that there is always a tension, if not a struggle, over power and control.
Easy joke: especially if you’re married! (Note: Love you, honey, and it’s 25 years in September!)
The trick is to figure out how to accept direction, guidance, criticism and more from the other, understanding that he or she genuinely wants the best for you — without all of that feeling leading to feelings of being diminished, demeaned or, worse yet, submission.
Draw your chairs closer into this little group therapy circle, please: that acceptance explains precisely why Michael Phelps is swimming unbelievably great at these 2016 Olympics, which he swears — uh-huh — will be his last.
After years of fighting over control issues with his longtime coach and mentor, Bob Bowman, Phelps found the maturity and the faith in himself to let go. He simply said, OK, Bob knows what he’s doing and I am going to trust him.
Same team, same dream.
In — purportedly — the last individual race of his Olympic career, Friday’s men’s 100m butterfly, Phelps, at 31, the oldest competitor in the eight-man field, touched in a three-way tie for second, at 51.14 seconds, along with South Africa’s Chad le Clos and Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh.
Joe Schooling of Singapore, 21, who swims at the University of Texas and is a product of the swim-famous Bolles School in Jacksonville, Fla., pulled off the win, racing to an Olympic-record 50.39.
For true swim nerds, the 100m fly result could hardly be unexpected. In a 100m fly in Texas in June, Schooling beat Phelps by seven-hundredths of a second.
Even so, Schooling said late Friday, “It’s nuts.”
Referring to Phelps, he added, “I was lucky and privileged to race him. I’m thankful I could get my hand on the wall first. I think this is just a small thing in his career. He is still the greatest. No one can take away how many gold medals he has — 22 or 23, something like that? I only have one. I can’t even dream of getting 20 more. “
Phelps has 22 gold medals, 27 overall. He has 13 individual gold medals.
To put that in rough context: Ryan Lochte, who himself has had a brilliant career, has 12 medals overall.
“No. 3,” Phelps said late Friday, holding up his third career silver medal. “Third one of these.”
Phelps likely has one more race here, the medley relay, which traditionally has proven a lock for gold for the Americans.
Assuming that comes to pass, Phelps will leave Rio with five golds and Friday’s silver.
For comparison: Katie Ledecky, who won the women’s 800m free Friday night in a crazy-fast world-record 8:04.79, currently stands at four golds and a silver. Same as Phelps.
Ledecky is 19.
All of which begs the logical question: dude, why stop?
If Phelps did just enough to, say, make the relays at the 2020 Tokyo Games, that would afford the opportunity to reach 30 medals. He would be 35 by 2020, and 35-year-old Anthony Ervin, winner Friday night of the men’s 50m free in 21.4, is proof positive that swim life doesn’t have to stop after 30. Ervin was 19 when he tied for gold with Gary Hall Jr. in the same race in Sydney, in 21.98.
Lochte, who predicted after London that Phelps would be back for Rio, said here there has to be at least a chance Phelps might consider Tokyo.
“We love that excitement, we love that challenge,” Lochte said. “He wants to push his limits.”
He also said, referring to himself and Phelps, “I would like to think the USA needs us, especially Michael. He has been the backbone of Team USA since 2000. I definitely hope he comes back.”
“Done,” Phelps said Friday at one of several interview stops around the pool. “That’s it. I’m done. I’m finished. When I was walking around,” meaning the pool deck after the medal ceremony, “I was taking it in — my last individual walk-around.
“It’s weird. But I’m ready to move on,” adding with a smile, “Maybe have some more kids — I don’t know.”
If so, this leads — more gentle therapy — to the central question that is going to challenge Phelps now, after this latest star turn in Rio, just as it did after 2004 in Athens, 2008 in Beijing and 2012 in London:
Who am I, really, and what do I want to do?
This question confronts every single one of us. It does not differ. It does discriminate. It does not care what you look like, whether you have riches or not, whether you are the world’s best or — not.
Swimming ends Saturday here in Rio. Then comes Sunday. And then what?
For sure, Phelps has a family now, the affection evident between father, son Boomer and fiancée Nicole Johnson.
Still, unless Phelps is going to be a full-time dad — picture that — the question remains. If you are the best swimmer of all time, what next?
He has his foundation, sure, and it does the important work of helping kids learn to swim. He has his own MP swim line. He has more money than he could ever want, or need.
So — what now?
The reason Phelps says he wants to stop is that training is hard, and it hurts, and he’s 31.
Everyone could see, after Thursday’s dominant near-two second win in the 200m IM, that it’s getting harder for Phelps to get out of the water afterward — even if, as he said, “It’s just as sweet standing on the top of the podium listening to your national anthem play.”
Coming into Rio, there were those who doubted Phelps could do what he has done here.
In more or less decent shape, Phelps won six medals in London, four gold.
What clicked in between London and Rio, after the second drunk driving incident and his self-imposed time off for real therapy at a facility in Arizona, was the realization that Phelps could, and should, put his complete faith in Bowman — simply, profoundly, genuinely.
You know why it’s hard to do that? To give yourself over to someone else? Because there’s a risk — which everyone understands, even if intuitively — that things might go wrong. And if they do, then blame, shame and the rest of it surfaces, sometimes with ugly consequence.
This was Phelps at an early Friday morning news conference after the 200m IM: “I just had to trust Bob. For some reason, I trusted him when I was 11 years old. He hasn’t let me down once. So I didn’t think he would let me down this time.”
The signal that Phelps was ready to rock here came Sunday, when he swam 47.12 during his leg of the men’s 4x100m free relay, punctuated by a turn that Bowman said was Phelps’ best-ever.
To win a 200m medley by roughly two seconds, like he did Thursday — that is fantastic.
“I didn’t put myself in the greatest position,” he said of Friday’s race, “but it’s all I could do. And I’m OK with it.”
The name “Michael Phelps” and the notion of being “OK” with silver need not be jarring. In Rio, Phelps has once more shown not just his athletic greatness but, unquestionably, a way more human side of him, indeed real sensitivity. If this is truly to be the final call on the greatest-ever’s run, there’s this: his Rio run makes for world-class evidence of what is possible in the power of trust and belief.
In yourself. And the people you need in your life.
“Everything I put my mind to,” Phelps said, “I was able to accomplish.
“As a kid,” he said, “that’s just something you can dream of and hope for. I have worked hard to get where I am.”
And, the kicker, the thing Michael Phelps may or may not have said with quite as much meaning in prior years: “And I am thankful for the support.”