When you imagine the most decorated Olympian of all time swimming his last individual race, anything but gold seems like the imperfect way to watch a legend ride off into the distance.
Tonight, Michael Phelps didn’t get his kodak moment. He didn’t get his last moment on top of the world as the most dominant figure in the sport of swimming. He didn’t get to smack the water, celebrating another thrilling fingernail victory in the event where luck has always been on his side.
He didn’t get to jump up on the lane rope and put four fingers up to indicate his fourth consecutive shocking win in the 100m butterfly. He didn’t get to put water in his mouth and spit it out as he’s so often done after a huge victory. He had to look over and see 21-year-old Joseph Schooling celebrating his first Olympic medal, and see the scoreboard read an unfamiliar “2” next to his name.
But his second place finish, adding to the rarity of silver medals that he’s won in his career, was somewhat of a perfect result for the last individual of his race.
He tied with two swimmers who have intertwined their history with Phelps so well; you can’t mention them without mentioning the American superstar. Chad le Clos of South Africa and Laszlo Cseh of Hungary tied with Phelps. The three of them all touched second in a time of 51.14, as equals.
It’s perfect because they didn’t beat Phelps, and Phelps didn’t beat them. Le Clos and Cseh had choice words to say about Phelps at last year’s world championships, and Phelps swam. Tonight they all wanted to beat Phelps, and Phelps just swam.
It was perfect because none of them will get the chance to stand on the top of the podium after their last showdown that everyone thought was just between the three of them. That spot is reserved for Joseph Schooling of Singapore who beat them all by a more than a ridiculous margin to claim his country’s first swimming medal ever.
That lost is Phelps first major international loss in the event since the 2005 World Championships in Montreal where rival Ian Crocker got the better of him to take home the gold in world record timing. In that race Crocker infamously swam the 50.40 world record that would elude Phelps until the 2009 World Championship trials where he broke it with a 50.22.
Although he beat that world record, that time still eluded him. It was the fastest textile swim ever, and Phelps had never beaten it in anything but a Speedo LZR Racer, a suit that is now banned due to its material. Until today, that time stood as the fastest textile swim ever in the 100m butterfly, and the one record that even the great Michael Phelps could not beat.
Tonight, in the same final, Schooling of Singapore broke the record by one one-hundredth of a second, swimming a 50.39 to beat Phelps to the wall.
Finally, 11-years later, the 50.40 textile best time was beaten, although to the shock of many not at the hands of Phelps. But this loss and the breaking of a record that even Phelps couldn’t beat marks the largest passing of the torch that defines Phelps’ influence on the sport.
It shows a young swimmer, at just 21-years-old, ushering in a new age of the 100m butterfly. There’s no more Phelps, no more Crocker, no more Milorad Cavic, no more of Phelps old competitors that he had to defeat one last time.
After the race Phelps told Schooling, “good job, that was a great race.” Schooling said to him, “Four more years?” Phelps replied, “no way.”
It’s a new age of the 100m butterfly, a fresh, Phelps-less age with a new textile best time that Phelps will never get. It’s a time that has nothing to do with Phelps and now everything to do with the future.
As mentioned above it’s also the first Olympic medal ever won by a Singaporean swimmer, demonstrating the growth that Phelps has brought to the sport of swimming, a sport that is now demonstrating medallists across the world and constantly growing in an increase in popularity.
After all, his ultimate goal wasn’t to be the winningest Olympian of all time. His ultimate goal is to change the sport of swimming forever, and in that, he is the undeniable undisputed number one.
And that, is the silver lining.
Joseph Schooling met Michael Phelps in Singapore in 2008. He just beat him in the 100 meter butterfly pic.twitter.com/DsINHyJBXO
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) August 13, 2016