Phelps, the most decorated Olympian ever, reveals a new relaxed persona... The edge is gone. The untouchable, unparalleled competitor, the man who broke spirits with such crushing excellence that gold always seemed like a foregone conclusion. He won races while he was still behind the blocks with that thousand yard stare. And he could never, ever be caught from behind.
That man is gone now and it's both refreshing and disconcerting. We all knew this was his last meet, but I don't think anyone expected it to be this way. Not just because we couldn't conceive of Phelps losing - the 200 fly of all things! - but because he truly seems fine with everything.
He's a man at peace, it seems. With the decisions he's made over the last four years, and with the consequences he's feeling here in London. He's fine with that. He knows he doesn't have a goddamn thing to prove to anyone. And that sense of satisfied closure appears to have made him a much nicer guy.
Now that's not to say that Phelps isn't infuriated by his out-touched silver tonight in the 200 fly. The way he lost it was eerie, a true live-by-the-sword, die-by-the-sword moment. It was Beijing's miracle 100 fly in reverse, with South Africa's Chad Le Clos playing the role of Phelps, as Phelps himself coasted into the wall just like Mike Cavic. Head up, arms reaching, momentum failing - it looked exactly the same. As did Le Clos's Phelps impersonation - a bad ass head down short stroke punch to the wall that snatched away what looked like certain gold.
Moments after seeing the scoreboard, Phelps tossed his cap, the rage at the result barely contained. He exited the pool quickly. I don't know if he went backstage and threw chairs and screamed obscenities and punched walls, maybe he did and who could blame him? But when he returned on camera with his relay mates in the men's 4 x 200 free, he was back in the zone and he got the job done.
Yet listening to the American foursome's joyful post-race banter, it was bizarre to hear what Phelps kept repeating over and over. I needed a lead. I just told these guys I needed a lead... Come again? Michael Phelps needing a lead, just to hang on to victory? This is the guy who could swim down anyone, in anything. Back in the day, he wouldn't need a lead, he would want to dive in behind, just to make it interesting. Because if you were within striking distance, you were dead.
Phelps was just being honest. France's Yannick Agnel is now the better swimmer. He would have smoked Phelps if he'd dove in a second or two behind. What's bizarre is that Phelps is fine with that. He knows it and he isn't fighting it. He's just trying to enjoy this farewell Olympic tour, come what may.
This is not a champion who can't accept when his time has come. Who can't admit that his passion has waned and now hungrier swimmers are beginning to eat him up. Truth is, he's been waiting for this time to come for quite some time.
He still has two more individual races left and they're going to be special ones. First, that showdown with Lochte in the 200 IM, and then, the rematch with Cavic in the 100 fly. He still may win them both. To win either, he'll have to go to the well one last time. We'll see what's left down there over the next four days.
Many expected this epic career to end with one more dominating scorched earth Olympic performance. But it turns out this one isn't about the medal haul.
Maybe, for the ultimate Olympian of all time, it's about remembering the Olympic creed itself:
The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.