"The Things We Forget" is a chronicle of 2008 in sports. It is presented in 11 parts. This is Part 2, on Michael Phelps. At the bottom of this piece, you can navigate to the other 10 parts.
Two thousand eight was a memorable year in sports, maybe the greatest ever.
Giants-Patriots. Kansas-Memphis. Celtics-Lakers. Tiger-Rocco. Federer-Nadal. But because so much transpired, it can sometimes seem as if none of it did. Watching sports this year was looking at art in the Louvre: When you're overwhelmed, even the Mona Lisa begins to pale.
Yet out of so much magic emerged a gangly kid from Baltimore who ended up with eight gold medals around his neck, and even he doesn't know how it happened. In October, Michael Phelps sat on a backstage couch at MTV, thought back to Beijing and the 100 fly he won by 1/100th of a second and said, "I've watched that race so many times, and I still can't figure it out. I can't see where I was better. Was it my start, was it my turn, was it my finish? I have no idea. It still blows my mind."
Normally, Olympic athletes enjoy two weeks in an intense, unyielding spotlight, then vanish. (I remember watching Apolo Ohno skate laps in an empty arena in 2005 as his coaches piped in crowd noise to remind him of the Olympics.) Phelps is different. Weeks after Beijing's torch had been snuffed out, he was still taking a nationwide victory lap. "East Coast, West Coast, East Coast, West Coast," he said. "It's been nuts."
On that October day, he was touring New York City on behalf of PureSport, a small sports-drink company that he was helping to turn into a giant simply by carrying around a bottle of the stuff. One of his stops was MTV's Total Request Live—about to join Yankee Stadium among the newly extinct—where he was surrounded by teenage girls who screamed for him to lift his shirt and show them the world's most famous 12-pack. "I definitely don't have that now," Phelps said, letting them down softly. The abs were gone.
More than his stomach had changed since Beijing. The week before, I'd gone to Pete's Grille in Baltimore, home of the huge breakfast Phelps made famous: egg sandwiches, grits, waffles, omelets, 80 gallons of OJ. I asked the waitress if Phelps still came by now that he was rich and famous. "No," she said. "I don't think we'll be seeing him again for a long time." There had once been a shrine to Phelps behind the counter. Now, it had been scaled down and moved to the back wall. The way ex-lovers compete to be first over the breakup, Pete's Grille had decided to quit its former best customer. The life of a champion had taken its toll.
In more ways than one. "I've been back in the water twice," Phelps said at MTV. "It hasn't been pretty, and it hasn't been comfortable. January, February, when I really start to train, I'm just going to have to suck it up. The first three or four weeks are going to be brutal. All the fun will be gone by then." Even from that couch, Phelps was already turning his mind toward 2012. "That's how you have to think," he said. "That's how long it takes to prepare." He had spent the previous four years thinking about winning eight gold medals. Would he have been disappointed with seven, had that 1/100th of a second gone the other way? "Probably," Phelps said. "I wanted to be the first Michael Phelps, not the second Mark Spitz."
Phelps and Spitz talked after the record-tying seventh gold but not after the record-breaking eighth. By then, Spitz had disappeared altogether. There was radio silence between the two. What would the new king have said to him, anyway? Neither wanted to acknowledge the hurt that comes with being erased. From now on, it was Phelps who would be made young again and again, remembered every four years as the best there ever was.
Sometimes, though, even the people who make history forget it. While Phelps was in Beijing, he studied the experience as though he were studying for a test. Athens, where he won six golds in 2004, was mostly lost to him, and he wanted to take home a clearer picture of 2008. "I tried to take it all in, more than I ever had before," he said. "Hanging out in the Olympic Village, we played these big games of Risk. I remember a lot of yelling and screaming after I would get knocked out of the game; I also remember a lot of yelling and screaming after I touched the wall. I remember, after my sixth race, I was just exhausted. But I told myself, You've got two races left, the two shortest ones. You can get up for this. I remember everything. I remember all of it."
He was quiet then, leaning his head onto the back of the couch. He looked exhausted again. "The thing is, my lifetime goal is accomplished. I wanted to be the first to do something. So this was the year I did what I've always wanted to do. Now I've got to find something else."
Later, on his way downstairs to a motorcade, photographers and lines of police, Phelps stopped to check out the passport photos that lined the hallways, the rows of TRL guests who had agreed to look goofy in four tiny frames. Phelps pointed out Pink. "I got to hang out with her at a party a little while ago," he said. "She's a great girl." But the faces that jumped out at me were the ones who were no longer around. Here were Heath Ledger, Bernie Mac, Steve Irwin—in their primes not long ago, smiling for the pinhole camera, and then, in a blink, gone. One hundredth of a second really can make all the difference in the world.
Other Parts of "The Things We Forget"
Part 1: The Closing of Yankee Stadium
Part 3: Lance Armstrong and David Tyree
Part 4: Annika Sorenstam
Part 5: Josh Hamilton
Part 6: Venus and Serena Williams
Part 7: The Boston Celtics
Part 8: Rocco Mediate and Tiger Woods
Part 9: Sidney Crosby
Part 10: Thurman Munson's old locker at Yankee Stadium
Part 11: The 2008 World Series
Bonus: See the author's receipts from putting together this story.