Sunday, August 5, 2012

Watching the End of An Era

Thanks for the good times Michael.
Phelps, Hansen, Kitajima... As the names rolled out for the final race of the London Olympics, I started to feel pretty nostalgic. Cseh too...the final race of the 2012 Olympics was going to be the end of an era. This is truly the first generation where the best of one generation all stuck around to race the next wave. It made for probably the most exciting Olympic racing I have ever seen. Many of the story lines are not new- young stars breaking through and veterans making one last stand. It just seemed that, in 2012, there were far more of both than there has ever been.

A wave hit me while Michael Phelps took his last few strokes of fly as surely as it has hit so many of his competitors over the years. I knew it was coming- I tried to cherish the last few strokes of the greatest swimmer I will ever see. It was a satisfying end- especially after the world seemed prepared to bury Phelps after the first day of the competition. Phelps vs Lochte will never be a serious debate among swimming historians.

It's going to take far longer than a few hours to dissect his legacy, but here's the best we have so far. Phelps showed what heights swimming could go to but also it's limitations. Can a swimmer be an all-world "professional" athlete? Sure, if he's transcendentally great. A handful of others can scrape something together, at least enough to stay competitive. Hansen said as much in their post race interviewThe next generation will define whether "pro" swimming is going to be real or not. At the same time, he revealed how unready for "prime time" swimming is.

Both Phelps and his eternal crown prince Lochte, through no fault of their except for being human, wilted under heavier media attention. Phelps, as we found out, is a dorky guy who was forced to grow up way too fast in some ways while being trapped in puberty in others. . How many other 27 year old swimmers necessitated a reaction shot from their mother after every swim? Part of me desperately wants to see if Phelps could keep going for another four years with a complete change of scenery- but alas it seems that has come and gone.

More than anything, while I watched the final moments of the 2012 Olympics, I thought of some future young swim fan, if I'm lucky enough my own child, asking me what it was like.

What was it like to watch the great Michael Phelps? I'll tell them it was like watching the skinny kid with an underbite from your elementary school beat up every bully in the world.

What about Kitajima, seems like he struggled in the end? I'll them what a frustrating mess breaststroke can be. It's like trying to wrestle a lion with your bare hands. I was totally amazed that one guy seemed to pin that lion so many times. So maybe he didn't have it in London, but on that final relay he delivered a gem.

Maybe they'll ask: why didn't Alexander Dale Oen defend his world title? That'll be a tough one to start, but I'll smile when I remember the two breaststroke champions from London, Cameron van der Burgh and Daniel Gyurta. Each paid tribute to Dale Oen in their own way.

Finally, maybe they'll ask me about Chad Le Clos, who hopefully will go on to be far more than the "guy who touched out Phelps". Perhaps Ye Shiwen, or Missy Franklin, is poised to dominate female swimming in a way no one has before. Maybe, just maybe, rather than the end of era I'll look back at this as a beginning, when swimming reached a tipping point. I sure hope so.

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