Why Phelps still matters
ATHENS, Greece -- This race was not for a million bucks. This race was for much, much more.
This race was for a sport that is dying in a football and basketball-obsessed country. This race was for a sport that is too-often drowned by budgetary cuts in a Title IX world. This race was for a sport that needs Michael Phelps to win gold medals not for endorsements or even pride, but for its very survival. More than anything, this race was for some nameless 7-year-old boy somewhere in America. The boy doesn't much care that the stands at the Main Pool were a bit emptier a day after Michael Phelps lost to Ian Thorpe in The Amazing Race. He doesn't care that so many American writers returned their tickets to Tuesday's swimming events because they lost their storyline. He probably doesn't know or care much about what Mark Spitz did in 1972.
The boy has a decision to make about what sport to play. He is an American boy, so he can play any sport he wants. Why would he want to swim? Why would he want to wake up at some crazy hour and trample out to a frigid car only to shiver on a pool deck all morning? Why would he want to wear a pair of goggles and a pair of Speedos with everyone watching?
Tuesday night, that boy got some answers.
Tuesday night, the boy got to see Michael Phelps truly happy, truly beside himself with excitement. He got to see Phelps without that isolating iPod, as part of a team. He got to see an American swimmer not named Phelps beat the Thorpedo, win gold for himself and five others, and then dedicate his once-in-a-lifetime race to people fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. He got to see a race that he might remember for a very long time.
The Australians have owned the 4x200-meter freestyle relay for the better part of a decade. And why not, with Thorpe and Grant Hackett on the team? Tuesday night, they were favored against four Americans who must have felt their nation turning away from them. The women gymnasts went tonight. So did the men's basketball team. Old standbys.
Phelps went first. This time, for the first time, he had no headphones. It was so strange, almost awkward, to see him coming out onto the deck two nights before with his teammates for the 4x100 freestyle final with those blocky things on. Tonight was different. He won gold in the 200 butterfly earlier in the evening and nearly lost it on the podium. He seemed overwhelmed by the energy and the moment. He seemed, for the first time in these Games, like a 19-year-old kid.
Then he came out for the relay with a laser stare. "Very intense," said his coach, Bob Bowman. He wanted this. Badly.
Phelps had one responsibility: get a lead. And it was clear from the second he jumped from his block that he would do his job. Hackett could only stay close. The night before, Phelps felt the wake of an Aussie. This time, he made the waves. He went 1:46:49 -- more than a second slower than the night before, but good enough for a one-length lead. Was it enough?
Ryan Lochte, the laid-back Gator, jumped in. He turned in a phenomenal morning swim, but doing it again at night was different. Much different. Lochte couldn't hold the gap against Michael Klim. Phelps' head start had been erased before the halfway mark. Now America's best swimmer stood helpless while Australia's best stood waiting to finish the job.
Then something unexpected happened. Coach Eddie Reese had told his boys before the race to finish their legs strong. Whatever they did, finish strong. And Lochte did. He took the lead back. Then he extended it.
The third leg belonged to Peter Vanderkaay. He, too, fought off Australian counterpart Nick Sprenger. But then another ominous sign. From the outside raced the Italians. They shot out of third, into second, and looked ready to take both the Americans and the Aussies out. Vanderkaay turned in his best-ever time, but there was a major concern shrouded completely in black waiting at the final wall. It was Thorpe.
No way could Klete Keller hold this lead. No way. This was the Thorpedo, the best ever at this 200 freestyle deal. The man owned the event. And the night before, he had made Keller an also-ran. Keller could not hold a one-and-a-half second lead for 200 meters. Thorpe sprung off the boards, launched his motor kick, and the crowd screamed. Thorpe made the lead evaporate almost right away. Everyone knew what would happen next.
The two, Thorpe and Keller, were neck and neck. Keller breathed away from Thorpe, almost as if afraid to look. But the certain thing did not happen, at least not yet. The pair remained a pair. Thorpe's golden cap did not creep ahead.
Surely this was only a dramatic pause. Thorpe gets better with each leg in this event. Remember the night before? Thorpe destroyed Flying Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband in the last 75 meters. Of course, he would repeat it.
Somehow, Keller touched the 150-meter wall first. Back he went. His teammates waiting on the deck shook their fists as their eyes bugged out. Had anyone seen Phelps this animated? Ever? He looked like he was at a Ravens game. Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, ate it up. And down the stretch they came.
Thorpe and Keller, Keller and Thorpe. Was the Aussie just playing with the American, or was this really going to the wall? How could this be happening? With 10 meters left, the two disappeared in the waves and the moment. Keller touched the wall and had no clue of his fate. He came up for air and looked at his teammates. They looked up at the scoreboard.
Keller. USA. Gold. Pandemonium.
They hugged and jumped and yelled. Phelps raised his arms as if electric currents were searing through them. Klete Keller -- KLETE KELLER! -- had held back Ian Thorpe.
The four danced off the deck. They glowed.
"I wanted to try and keep the lead, and it hurt like hell, but it paid off and we won," Keller said. "I'm so happy and proud."
"I was on pins and needles," Vanderkaay said, shaking his head, grinning.
"I'm not crying," Reese said. "This is a dust attractant."
"That," Phelps said, "was one of the greatest races of all time."
And somewhere in America, a 7-year-old boy is thinking maybe that could be him someday.
Eric Adelson is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Carrie Sheinberg contributed to this report.