Michael Phelps has certainly built quite the resume to be called the greatest of all time–he is the most decorated Olympic athlete with 27 medals and has the most gold medals with 22, shattering numerous Olympic and world records along the way.
Some would even say that Phelps is immortal in the swimming universe, especially after breaking a 2,168-year old record for most gold medals in individual events. It’s a feat that seemingly withstood the test of time, until he set a new mark earlier this week.
However, on Friday night, the world got a reminder that Phelps is not immortal. And frankly, it’s not a bad thing.
In fact, it’s actually beautiful poetry.
There was no Kodak moment, no splashing in celebration, and no opportunity for Phelps to raise four fingers into the air to signify a four-peat as a gold medalist in the 100m butterfly.
Instead, Phelps’ streak of gold medals was put to a shocking halt by Singapore’s Joseph Schooling. The 21-year old swimmer set an Olympic record en route to holding off Phelps and the rest of the pack to victory.
It might not have been the send off Phelps wanted in his final individual Olympic race but in some ways, it was.
Phelps’ mentality started to change since the London Olympics in 2012. Medals and accolades are certainly great for his legacy, but he also wanted to be an ambassador and a pioneer to bring more change and attention to the sport of swimming.
This change was realized on Friday night.
It was a coronation for the new generation of swimming. Not only did Schooling beat Phelps, the man he grew up idolizing as a young swimmer, but he also beat South Africa’s Chad Le Clos and Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh–two of Phelps’ rivals in the last couple Olympic games.
Going in, many thought that the 100m butterfly would be a three-man race between Le Clos, Cseh, and Phelps.
Le Clos and Cseh wanted to beat Phelps, just as he wanted to beat them–but it wasn’t their night. Neither one was able to achieve aquatic supremacy and instead tied one another in historic fashion, as they deferred to Schooling, who beat them by nearly a full second more.
In fact, he schooled them in the qualifying and semifinal heats, clocking in the top times in each round before going into the finals.
Schooling first met Phelps shortly before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The United States Swimming Team was training in Singapore, when Schooling–as a 13-year old–got to meet his idol. He excitedly got a picture with Phelps and received his autograph too.
Surely, he couldn’t imagine what would transpire eight years later.
Aside from besting the most dominant swimmer the world has seen for over a decade, Schooling began his own path as an Olympic trail blazer. After all, it runs in the first time Olympian’s family.
His granduncle, Lloyd Valberg, was Singapore’s first Olympian, competing in the 1948 London Olympics. He inspired Schooling to strive for the Olympics as a young boy. Now, his Olympic record finish brought home the first ever gold medal to Singapore.
It’s a feat that demonstrates the growth of swimming worldwide. The sport is starting to take shape and foundations are being created in other countries–some of which, you won’t expect or wouldn’t have been quick to name as a contender.
It’s a medal that Phelps won’t be able to challenge in the 2020 Tokyo Games, and an Olympic record he won’t get to race for.
It’s a changing of the guard, the post-Phelps era has already begun.
Phelps set out to change the swimming world and to inspire others, Schooling is that idea personified. He is the new champion of the 100m butterfly, dethroning Phelps and his rivals himself.
The swimming world doesn’t have to worry. While one of it’s most iconic faces will be stepping away from the pool at the conclusion of the Rio Games, there shouldn’t be any shortage of exciting competition in the years to come. Phelps’ defeat reaffirms that.
There will be more new faces and swimmers by the time the next Summer Olympics roll around and while it will be a strange sight not seeing Phelps don his black swimming cap with the United States’ flag emblazoned on it, he will get to marvel at the future of swimming and where the sport is headed.
For now, this is it for Phelps. If he doesn’t change his mind, the sport will be just fine in the hands of Schooling and every one who wants to be like Mike.