Column: Phelps stops Olympic clock for us all
ABS-CBN Sports on Aug 15, 2016 09:54 AM
United States' Michael Phelps celebrates as he takes the victory lap with teammates during the medal ceremony for the men's 4 x 100-meter medley relay final during the swimming competitions at the 2016 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
JOHN LEICESTER, AP Sports Columnist
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Got a bad case of lingering PMPD — Post-Michael Phelps Depression? If you think his retirement from Olympic swimming is a bitter pill, then batten down the hatches for the imminent global epidemic of Life's Hardly Worth Living Without Usain Bolt when he schmoozes out in a samba of sad emotion this week.
Storms of Mo Farah Misery also are forecast. Having retained his 10,000-meter title at the Rio Games, the British runner only needs a repeat in the 5,000 on Saturday to give him a gold medal for each of his four children and a good excuse to close the curtain on the Olympics at age 33.
Bradley Wiggins has ridden off into the Rio de Janeiro sunset, having become the only Brit with eight Olympic medals, all in cycling and from five games. The tick-tock of the Olympic clock would also suggest that these were likely the final games for 30-year-old Rafael Nadal, 34-year-old Serena Williams and the 2008 and 2012 Olympic women's 100-meter champion, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, finally overtaken at age 29 by another Jamaican five years her junior, Elaine Thompson. Evergreen gymnast Oksana Chusovitina is a notable exception, already eyeing what she hopes will be her eighth Olympics in 2020, when she will be, wait for it, 45.
When, eventually, they all join Phelps in retirement, they'll be sorely missed. If sports teams are like a marriage, with us our whole lives, Olympians are brief but exciting recurring romances. By wowing and wooing for two weeks every four years, they can sink deeper hooks into hearts than footballers, baseball players and others who, by populating lives and screens 24/7, become part of the furniture. To twist the lyrics from the "Girl from Ipanema," when Olympians pass by, all tall and tan and young and lovely, the rest of us can only go "aah."
As we age, Olympians just seem to get younger.
First, they seed the gardens of our childhood imaginations, giving us an idea of who we want to be when we grow up. In our twenties, they are more like us, at the height of our powers, only with superpowers. In our thirties, they are what we would like to think we could be again if we shed pounds and unwrap those unused running shoes. But by middle age and beyond, their youth becomes insolent and their taut vigor becomes a mirror for what we've lost forever: You cannot take your eyes off them but looking hurts more than a little, too.
Pass the cachaça, with a double dose of Prozac.
Even Phelps seemed to feel morbidity's cold claw after his last Olympic race, saying at his last post-victory Olympic news conference that his baby son, Boomer, will likely inherit his 28 medals, 23 of them gold, when he dies.
Phelps sank into his chair with the audible sigh of an old lion for his final Q-and-A.
"It's nice to sit down," he said, wearing all of his 31 years.
Welcome to the club, Michael. Here, try the slippers, take the remote.
The younger generations reading this won't yet fully understand how the retirement of an Olympian whose ups, many ups, and downs you have followed for such a large slice of life, through five Olympics, feels like the onset of grey hair, the wrong side of a watershed.
At best, how many Summer Olympics do any of us get to witness? Fifteen, perhaps, 20 if we're lucky? For 25 percent of that journey, Phelps has swum at our side, reassuringly constant, plying us with thrill upon thrill.
By holding creeping years at bay for his last Olympic week, fueled by a love rekindled for swimming that he'd lost ahead of the 2012 London Games, Phelps kept his eyes fixed on the here and now, on his next exploit and his late bloom into a more mature, thoughtful, and engaging version of the one-dimensional medal machine he used to be. By un-retiring for Rio, Phelps enabled us to pretend that this wasn't quite the end until, of course, it was.
Now, we can only look back at what used to be. Being beaten by 21-year-old Joseph Schooling in the 100-meter butterfly and swimming his last gold-medal winning relay with Ryan Murphy, the 21-year-old who broke the world record for the first 100-meter leg of backstroke, were telltale signs that Phelps' time is up. Both Schooling and Murphy have old souvenir photos they took with Phelps when they were youngsters and he was an upcoming Olympic idol. Now is their time to become idols to others.
If these are the games of big-names retirements, headlined by the farewells of Phelps and Bolt, then logic dictates that the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 must be the games of renewal. New, as yet unknown stars will be born; there should be more medals to look forward to from Katie Ledecky, already the owner of five swimming golds at just 19, and others now carving out their place in Rio.
But there will always be a void where Phelps and Bolt once lived so large.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at [email protected] or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester . See his work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/john-leicester