Now, we have an inkling of just how hard it is to beat a world that has trained four years toward the sole goal of making you look silly. In 2008, sometimes though sheer force of will, it seemed, Phelps foiled the world. This time, however, it is not just the Michael Phelps Show.
These Games are different, Phelps has said. He got his sundae in Beijing. Now, it's more a question of "how many toppings I want" – like the Olympic medal record. And that has made for a kinder, gentler Phelps here.
After his silver-medal performance Tuesday, he said: “I got a bit too serious two days ago. So I just got to relax and smile and have fun.”
Two days ago, if you’re counting at home, was Sunday, the day after Phelps finished fourth in the 400-meter individual medley. It was the day he swam in the second leg of the 4x100 relay. And it was also the only time that the Phelps we came to know in Beijing has made an appearance here. For 100 meters, he was the predator again – the well-earned smile of satisfaction replaced by a snarl of wounded pride.
On Tuesday, however, South African le Clos was the predator.
Is it even conceivable that someone would have caught Phelps in the last 25 meters in Beijing, as le Clos did here?
Milorad Cavic can answer that question. That race, it was Phelps's fingertip on the wall first – by 0.01 seconds.
To le Clos, Tuesday was his sundae – his eight-gold-medal moment, the validation of an entire career wrapped into 1 minute and 52.96 seconds.
“Phelps is my hero, and I love the guy,” he said. “To beat him – I can’t believe it. You don’t understand what this means to me. This is the greatest moment of my life.”