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C. Fraser Smith: Phelps — still winning after all these years

He’s broken the all-time record for medals won at the Olympic Games and he’s established something entirely new — the Olympics as a victory lap.

He’s been enjoying himself — relaxed, reflective, modest and mature.

He’s been willing to address the hype.

Of course, the Michael Phelps of 2012 would not be up to the standard set by the Michael Phelps of 2008. He had informed the world then that he would win eight gold medals and he did. He was the Babe Ruth of swimming.

What he has done and not done in London illustrates that Beijing was a performance for the ages. He will not come close to duplicating it, and no one else will. By the middle of the week he had only one gold medal. It’s a laughable “only.”

Phelps was at the peak of his almost other worldly power four years ago. (One of my daughter’s college roommates suggested that he had that spectacular wingspan because his father was a pterodactyl.).

He had willed himself to attain psychological as well as physical heights. You don’t keep winning and improving without a core of resolve.

Human after all

This year, he got off to a disappointing start, finishing fourth and out of the medal picture in his first race.

But think of it. In his fourth Olympics he was still fourth in the world in this event, mere hundredths of a second behind the winner, Ryan Lochte — the designated Michael Phelps successor. “Gold vs. Glum,” declared a headline in The Washington Post.

Then he and Lochte and the rest of the Americans finished second to the French in a relay. On Tuesday, he lost the 200-meter butterfly — his signature event — again by a fraction of a fraction of a second.

Phelps and his teammates did win gold Tuesday in another relay — allowing Phelps to claim the title of winningest Olympian with 19 medals and counting.

And yet, you could feel the “Phelps Falls Short in London” headlines coming. Here we have another perspective on his accomplishment: Only Michael Phelps could be seen as falling short in games where he set such a record.

By now he understands that craziness as well.

He has performed on a stage where defeat can be as alluring as stunning success. They don’t call it “the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat” for nothing. Phelps apparently still feels both.

In the aftermath of Beijing, he began to look a bit like the college-aged kid he was. He was photographed while engaged with a marijuana pipe. He was stopped for driving under the influence of alcohol. He all but walked away from the pool. He was human after all.

Unrelenting demand

You wonder if he could have endured another grinding four years without a moment at least away from the consuming rigors of training.

The demand for Michael mastery has been unrelenting.

His now-famous mother, perhaps jokingly, told TV audiences that she wants to see Rio de Janeiro, where the 2016 games will be held. Her son, speaking to reporters elsewhere, says London is it.

He will probably leave on top. No one has replaced him as the world’s dominant swimmer as a TV “story line.” Lochte declared 2012 to be his year, but after his opening win, it has not been.

As of Tuesday, Michael Phelps seemed to be growing stronger.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays and other days in The Daily Record. His email address is [email protected]