Sunday, August 17, 2008
30 minutes, 51.68 seconds in the perfecting.
That's the combined length of time Michael Phelps swam to win his Olympic-record eight gold medals, to set seven world records, to swim five lifetime-best individual times, while enduring a pair of impossible hundreth of a second escapes, and a pair of goggles filled with water - to become the ultimate competitor in the history of the human species.
Let it be said, let it be clear: Michael Phelps is superman.
Not the comic book Superman, but the Nietzschean superman - the ubermensch. The over-man, the man who is separate and apart from all others, the man who has transcended the very essence of what it is to be human: to fail. The transition from man to superman, Nietzsche argues in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, does not happen through birth or genetic recombinations of DNA. Its is not something that happens by acccident. It is a conscious transition. It is carefully planned, and meticulously executed. It requires the man to completely give up everything he has that makes him human - it requires radical individualism and total isolation from the rest of the human race.
All ahtletes fail. All humans fail. I just watched the mens gymnastics floor routine finals, and the gold medal favorite from Brazil, who had performed a mezmerizing routine easily worthy of first place, fell on the landing of his final move. The look on his face was that of a lifetime training for a single moment, reaching that moment, and then failing. That is the essence of being human. Man is flawed, he is not perfect. If he was perfect, he would not be man.
This week, we saw a man transition from being human, to being inhuman. Over 17 swims (including prelims and finals) in an incredibly short 9 days, including 2 races in one day, Michael Phelps was in the water for roughly the length of a TV sitcom, and burned over 100,000 calroies. It turned out to be the greatest TV many Americans - and people all over the world - have ever seen. ESPN reported that at roughly 11:10 p.m. ET, Times Square erupted with cheers, as hundreds of people packed the four corners to stare up at Phelps on the giant screen and win the record 8th gold. Certainly, it is the most impressive feat I have ever witnessed in sports. Many people considered Mark Spitz's 7 gold medals in the 1972 Munich games to be unbreakable. If Spitz's record was unbreakable, Phelps record 8 medals is immortal.
This record will never be broken.
It will stand for as long as the Olympics are played. Just take a moment to consider that. Phelps set 7 (seven) world records in these Olympics. Sometime in the future, great swimmers will come along and break the world records, one by one. But 8 gold medals is eternal, unless they change the format of The Games. 8 golds is the maximum possible - the impossible. If I had not just witnessed a man do it, I would say its certainly not possible in this day and age of highly competetive international swimmimg.
"I think he's undisputedly the greatest swimmer of all time," longtime Italian coach Alberto Castagnetti said. "He's stratospheric, in technical terms and in terms of mental preparation. I've never seen anyone like him."
British swimmer Simon Burnett has a different take, which he shared with American men's coach Eddie Reese when they ran into each other in the cafeteria.
"He was saying to me, 'I think I've figured out Michael Phelps,'" Reese said. "'He is not from another planet; he is from the future. His father made him and made a time machine. Sixty years from now he is an average swimmer, but he has come back here to mop up.'"
Australian distance king Grant Hackett, who came up short in his bid to win a third straight 1,500 freestyle title, said of Phelps performace: "It can't be described. We'll never, ever see it again."
But Phelps did more than become immortal at Beijing in 2008, he actually evolved the human race. He showed us that things which are technically impossible - coming in first place in every event you enter against specialists from every nation in the world - are possible. The power of the human mind is unlimited. As different as Phelps body is from the rest of the field - it was his mind that enabled him to win 8 gold medals.
While "The Star-Spangled Banner" played as Phelps took the stage to accept his record 8th gold medal, with very human tears in his eyes, a lifetime of thoughts and memories flashed through his mind. A child with ADHD who struggled to stay in school had become a man who brought a nation - and the world - to its feet. "My mom and I still joke that I had a middle school teacher who said I'd never be successful," he said. It would take more than a few doubting teachers to keep him down. And it would take more than a few thousand daunting practices to hold him back.
On the days he hated to get out of bed, knowing that endless miles of tourturous practice laps lay ahead, the goals he'd written and kept on his nightstand were there to spur him on. Phelps has never told anyone other than his extraordinary coach, Bob Bowman, exactly what was on the goals sheet. But for the first time, he tacitly acknowledged Sunday that winning eight golds was part of the master plan.
"Everything was accomplished," he said. "Nothing is impossible."
Superman has arrived, and for the human race, we are all lucky to be witnesses, and we should all be inspired by Michael Phelps to eclipse our own humanity.