Why it's more fun to watch Michael Phelps in team events than individual ones
To Rick et al.
Subject: Watching Phelps play well with others
My head is still spinning from what we've just watched. I'll admit, I thought when Alain Bernard and Jason Lezak turned for home today that the Americans were toast. A lot of people were joking that France choked, because it's always funny to make jokes about the French choking, but what Lezak did was one of the most impressive things I've ever seen in my career. And no one was more excited than Michael Phelps, not because he wants to win eight gold medals, but because he loves being a member of a TEAM. And that's what makes the Olympic 400-meter freestyle relay one of my favorite events in all of sports.
I love watching Phelps compete in team events because he knows it's not about him. It's about his country. He's just one of four guys trying to work together, and I don't care what anyone says, that's more satisfying than dominating the 400-meter individual medley or winning the 100-meter butterfly. You would never see Michael go nuts the way he did today after an individual event. It would be completely inappropriate, and he knows it. But when he gets to be a part of something larger than himself -- and keep in mind, that doesn't happen often -- he loves it more than anything in the world.
Because Phelps' quest is such a compelling story, Maese, I think a lot of members of the media (and I'm not letting myself off the hook here either) seem to think every American swimmer should be as invested in his story as we are. And it doesn't work that way. In the news conference tonight, a lot of questions were thrown at Lezak, Garrett Weber-Gale and Cullen Jones that suggested a similar theme: Did you feel motivated to do this for Michael?
I find that a little ridiculous, frankly. Weber-Gale, Jones and Lezak all have dreams, just like you and I, and they've probably been imagining a moment like this for their entire lives. Phelps wasn't some larger driving force motivating the United States to swim fast because eight gold medals would be a historic feat. What was motivating those four guys to go fast was pride. Pride of country and team.
Did Michael Phelps thank you guys? asked one journalist in the post-race news conference.
"We did that together," Weber-Gale said. "I don't think that's needed. We wanted one of these too."
Should he give you a piece of his $1 million bonus if he wins eight? asked another.
"Michael knows we didn't do that for him," Lezak said. "He was a part of it, and we were a part of it. Whether he wins eight gold medals or not, it wasn't going to be our responsibility for that to happen. We all gave it our best effort. So if we did come up short, he's not going be looked upon as the guy who was on a relay that lost. Or that he could have been the guy who won eight gold medals. He's an amazing athlete, probably the best ever in this sport. Regardless of what happened here, he's still going to go down like that."
I loved those answers, and I wish more people would understand that the beauty of the relays is that Phelps is just one part of the equation. For three minutes, it's not about him. It's about, if you can pardon the pun -- "US." It's about the United States winning the gold medal in an event the country wants to win above all others. Jason Lezak was swimming for Michael Phelps over that final 100 meters, and Phelps was swimming for Lezak over the first 100 meters. They were all swimming for one another. That's why they were so emotional.
It will be a cool moment if, like you said, Phelps gets it done this week. I don't think there is another swimmer in the world that can match him stroke for stroke, wall for wall, right now. But if he does do it, I'll always remember today's relay, in the 30 seconds after Lezak touched the wall, when he was just an American swimmer in awe of how much fun it is to work together, kick butt and take names.
PHOTOS: Phelps/AP; Group hug/Getty Images