Vahe Gregorian

Running out of superlatives: Michael Phelps wins more Olympic gold at age 31

U.S swimmer Michael Phelps was full of bravado after winning the 200-meter butterfly, his signature event.
U.S swimmer Michael Phelps was full of bravado after winning the 200-meter butterfly, his signature event.

Michael Phelps was 15 years and 2 months old in 2000 when he qualified for his first Olympics team at the U.S. trials in Indianapolis.

That precocious performance made him the youngest male swimmer bound for the Games since 1932.

The event in which he qualified was the 200-meter butterfly, and the winner of that race and then-world-record holder, Tom Malchow, seemed to have a premonition about the future of swimming.

“Michael Phelps is awesome,” Malchow said that day. “He’s way ahead of where any other ’flyer has ever been at his age.”

As it happens, the same now can be said at this advanced vintage, too:

On Tuesday at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, at 31 years and 40 days old, Phelps became the oldest swimmer ever to win an individual Olympic gold medal when he triumphed in … the 200 butterfly.

So when you thought you were running out of superlatives for Phelps, who later in the 800-meter freestyle relay won his 21st Olympic gold and 25th overall Olympic medal, he somehow continues to enhance a profile that long ago seemed beyond perceived mortal boundaries.

On the night he became one for the ages in an entirely new way, an Olympic career that has spanned Phelps’ transition from childhood to fatherhood and many phases in between was symbolically bookended by the sight of Phelps marching into the stands to kiss infant son Boomer as Phelps mother, Debbie, cried alongside.

That came just after Phelps had stood atop an Olympic podium for the 20th time as the Star-Spangled Banner (or is it “The Ballad of Michael Phelps”) played either for him or a team he was on.

The scene became a vivid reflection of Phelps’ proclaimed determination to fully enjoy what in theory really will be his last Olympics in a way a burned-out husk of himself had not been able to in London four years ago.

As the clock ticked down to less than 15 minutes to anchoring the relay, then 10, the notoriously business-like Phelps we’d have seen in such circumstances in years past laughed as he posed for pictures with fellow medal winners after coming out of the stands.

Then, ho-hum, Phelps anchored the relay that finished in 7:00.66, 2.47 seconds ahead of silver-winning Great Britain.

The golds were Phelps’ second and third of these Games with two more individual races ahead as well as one more likely relay spot.

That means surely more medals to come, and who can sort them all out any more, really?

But this solo one had a certain extra zing and symmetry to it.

With the victory, Phelps’ avenged his mere silver in London after winning the 200 butterfly at both the 2004 Athens Games and 2008 Beijing Olympics.

And with that gold, he tethered together the start and finish of a legacy that will stand for the ages, too.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian