I was gratified when, after Medal 22, a commentator allowed that Phelps is without peer, the master procurer of Olympic medals. He then raised the questions: Is he the greatest athlete of all time? Indeed, is he even the greatest Olympic athlete of all time? The natatorium was jubilant with the exploits of the swimmers of the short course events and I too was just as captivated as a three time Olympian set new benchmarks of achievement. And I waited for Connor Jaeger’s swim, the lone American in the 1500.
Distance athletes are a breed onto themselves and many of us lesser mortals marvel at the time spent on task during the event. Due to the structure of some sport disciplines, the opportunities to “medal” is abundant. As in most sports, the distance participant simply doesn’t have the opportunity to compete in multiple events. Connor Jaeger has one chance in each Olympiad to take home a medal. There is not much hoopla surrounding an almost fifteen minute swim but the drama can be just as intense. Even when televised live, NBC chose not to show it without major interruption. Did you see any of it during Prime Time?
And how about our six foot, five and a half inch cyclist who, at 22 is the American Pro you’ve never heard of who holds six world titles and won Stage 4 at New Mexico’s Tour of the Gila last May. As a road cyclist (team BMC), he had two opportunities to medal in this (or any other) Olympiad, the road race and the time trial. One hundred and forty-four cyclists (all but three were professionals) started the 156 mile event and Taylor Phinney found himself a contender as more experienced riders were whittled away.
A crash eliminated Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland, 2008 Olympic Time Trial Champion) within a few miles of the race’s finish and the American squad felt they had a chance with Phinney, the youngest member. And after almost six hours of high speed chess (and cramps, nausea, and fatigue), Phinney missed the podium losing the sprint by the length of his bicycle. Over 27 mph. Almost six hours. The most grueling event in the Olympics. Did you hear about the American who took Fourth in his two medal opportunities?
For many athletes, Olympic opportunity doesn’t knock twenty-two times.