LONDON - Michael Phelps struggled to earn our love when he was invulnerable. He often acted as if he were better than anyone else. This makes sense, really. He was better than anyone else.
He was distant. He seemed uncomfortable in the spotlight, unless someone was paying him big money to endorse a product.
“Some people like to express their feelings in words,” he said. “Some people like to express it in actions. I’ve always done that by swimming.”
Phelps is now struggling with time. And, like everyone else who ever has lived, he’s losing the battle. The Greatest Olympian of Them All is now vulnerable.
And easier to love.
On Tuesday night, I watched at the Olympic Swimming Center as Phelps attempted to tie history. He was swimming toward the wall in the butterfly, a race he has utterly dominated. He seemed prepared to make his 18th Olympic medal a gold one.
Virtually everyone in the packed arena was standing, and this includes journalists. A London reporter next to me was shaking his fists and shouting obscenities as he cheered Phelps to the finish.
For all of us who watched Phelps seize control of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the next few seconds were surreal. Phelps got passed by South Africa’s Chad le Clos. The idea of Phelps getting overtaken once was unthinkable.
It’s becoming routine. On Saturday night, Phelps could not hold off the late charge of Japan’s Kosuke Hagino for bronze in the 400-meter individual medley. Phelps is 27. Hagino is 17. Time very literally passed Phelps on that race.
But Phelps, even in his fresh struggles, was still ready to make history. His silver medal in the butterfly tied him with Soviet Union gymnast Larisa Latynina for the all-time Olympic medal count.
A few minutes later, Phelps passed Latynina as a member of the 800 freestyle relay. Again, the arena roared as Phelps climbed atop Olympic history with a fresh gold medal. He has collected an astounding 15 gold medals, two silvers and two bronzes.
“There are a lot of emotions that are going through me right now,” he said. “I’m going to try to sleep tonight but I don’t know if it will be possible.”
As Phelps prepares to swim into the sunset, it’s easier to get a clear view of him. For years, he declined to be anybody but himself. He was stubbornly and openly reluctant to get touchy-feely with the general public.
At Friday’s opening ceremony, I saw, along with a billion other people, the startling sight of the aged, feeble Muhammad Ali. He was once, like Phelps, a dividing figure, beloved by some, ridiculed by others. He’s now an icon.
As Phelps celebrated in the water Tuesday, the crowd roaring with approval, it was easy to see his future. All his quirks, and there are many, will be forgiven.
In his final days in the spotlight, it’s become much easier to love Michael Phelps.