ATHENS, Greece -- Seemed like all of America tried to make Michael Phelps an American icon. Turns out, by doing something outside the pool, he's become just that.
History will remember Phelps' records and medals, but our generation should remember something far more important: Phelps gave up an Olympic race to help a teammate redeem himself.
Phelps and Ian Crocker swam side-by-side Friday night, but they were going in opposite directions. Phelps was on a beeline for four individual gold medals and immortality. Crocker was headed for an unjust infamy.
Crocker's disappointing leg in the 4x100 freestyle relay cost Phelps what could have been part of a seven gold medal haul -- and a million bucks. Phelps recovered beautifully. Crocker did not. "Devastated" was the word used by one U.S. swimming official. That might be an understatement. Crocker -- sensitive by nature in a world of superconfident athletes -- knew Phelps would be fine, but he struggled to cope with the reality that he also may have cost four other teammates and close friends a gold medal.
Friday morning, Crocker was told by coach Eddie Reese that he would not swim the butterfly leg of Saturday's 4x100 medley relay. Crocker said he understood the decision, but it obviously hurt. He had struggled all week to, as he put it, "get back on the horse," only to lose in his best event and then watch his last shot at salvaging his Games disappear. His lip quivered ever so slightly as he voiced his support for his coach's choice. Then he bravely answered all the questions about Friday's victor, selflessly giving Phelps credit for his own world record in the 100-meter butterfly.
Crocker shuffled off to drug testing as King Michael ascended the press conference dais flanked by the proud-as-peacocks Reese and Bob Bowman, his personal coach. Reporters flocked. It was yet another celebration -- coronation -- of a once-in-a-lifetime athlete.
And then, a surprise. Phelps announced he was done swimming in Athens. He said he was giving up the butterfly leg he had just earned with a first-place finish to the man he beat. He called Crocker -- a man whom he wanted to vanquish so badly that he has a poster of him on his bedroom wall -- "one of the greatest relay swimmers in U.S. history." Then Phelps confessed he wanted to give his teammate another chance.
"We came in as a team," he said. "We will leave as a team."
Amazing. This is someone who needed his PR agency to coach him on how to answer interview questions. This is someone who went through all those swims at U.S. trials hardly acknowledging anyone in any other lane. This is someone who came out for a freestyle relay -- surrounded by teammates -- with headphones on. This is someone who, when asked to whom he wanted to dedicate his first Olympic gold, said he would like to dedicate it to himself.
That's the competitive Phelps. There is another side.
Michael's mother, Debbie, has said in a thousand interviews that she loves how her only son interacts with people of all ages. But NBC will probably not televise conversations Phelps has with little kids, or with his older buddies behind the counter at Pete's Diner in northern Baltimore. The softer side of a swimming wonder has been mostly lost in the all-consuming pursuit of Mark Spitz.
Also lost has been the gift Phelps received from his two older sisters, Hilary and Whitney. They helped shepherd him through the divorce of their parents, and kept Michael as humble as possible when everyone around him told him only of his greatness. Whitney would probably have Olympic medals of her own if not for career-ending injuries. Her selfless support of her younger brother is the same rare sacrifice that Michael has now paid forward to Crocker.
Imagine the look on Crocker's face when he found out Phelps' decision. Imagine how he'll feel when he stands on that block Saturday night. That's a feeling he'll never forget, and he has a rival to thank.
Skeptics might say Phelps would never have parted with Lane 4 Saturday if it also meant parting with a medal. Maybe so. But the look of sheer joy on Phelps' face after watching Klete Keller hold off Ian Thorpe in the 4x200 meter freestyle relay shows otherwise. So does just one conversation with either of Phelps' sisters.
Funny how we've spent all these months finding new ways to paint Michael Phelps as superhuman, when with one stroke Friday night he made himself something even more precious: just plain human.
Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.