On the day when he won gold in the 4-by-200 freestyle relay to become history’s most-decorated Olympian, Michael Phelps also suffered the most-brutal loss of his Olympic career. Phelps led the 200-meter butterfly until the final few meters, when South Africa’s swimmer Chad Le Clos came from behind on the very last stroke to pip Phelps by five-hundredths of a second. It was the first time the American merman had lost a 200 butterfly at the Olympics since 2000, when he was 15-years-old.
How much strategy is involved in the final moments of a swim race? Was this a case of Phelps mistiming his last stroke or was it simply bad luck?
Dana Kirk, who swam the 200-meter butterfly for the United States at the 2004 Olympics, says she was never able to plan her last stroke. At the end of such a grueling event, she says, “you’re just trying to get to the wall.” Sometimes Kirk finished the 200 fly with a flourish, while in other races she limped to the finish. “Honestly, as far as I was concerned it was almost all luck,” she says.
But Michael Phelps is not your average Olympian. He has said in the past that he counts his strokes—in the butterfly, he knows exactly how many times he’ll windmill his arms each time down the pool, and how many strokes he requires to get from the pool’s five-meter mark to the wall. This knowledge helped him in the 200 fly final in Beijing, when his goggles filled with water. “At the end, I really couldn’t see,” he explained at the time. “I was looking for the ‘T’ on the bottom of the pool. It got to the point where I was counting strokes and hoping I would hit the wall just about right.”
In 2008, he did hit the wall just right, setting a new world record. But four years later, with his vision presumably not impaired, Phelps’ timing was less perfect.
Whether you’re doing the breaststroke, the butterfly, the backstroke, or the forward crawl, the basic principle remains the same: You want to finish with a powerful stroke that extends into the wall. In the 100-meter butterfly in Beijing, Milorad Cavic finished his final stroke well before Phelps did, but he didn’t quite reach the wall with his fingertips. Phelps, by contrast, hit the wall forcefully, out-touching the Serbian by one-hundredth of a second on his final, full extension.
In the 200 butterfly in London, Phelps found himself in Cavic’s position, finishing a little too far away from the wall and gliding to the finish. But Dana Kirk, who is now a swim coach in Palo Alto, Calif., says Phelps didn’t screw up, and that he didn’t miscount his strokes. Over the last five meters, Phelps takes two strokes, then finishes with what Kirk describes as a “body undulation” rather than a full over-the-top finish. His finish was “completely normal for a 200 fly,” she says, an ending that nobody would scrutinize if the race hadn’t been a breathtakingly close Olympic final
The extraordinary thing in this race wasn’t Phelps’ finish. It was the final stroke by Chad le Clos. The South African pulls off the best possible ending for a butterfly swimmer, coming in with full arm extension and slamming into the touchpad with full momentum.
Given that Phelps has looked more fallible thus far in 2012 than ever before, critics will look for any evidence that the 19-time medal winner isn’t the swimmer he used to be. But his silver in the 200-meter butterfly shouldn’t be used a data point for that hypothesis. In this race, it just so happened that the world’s most-extraordinary swimmer wasn’t the guy who pulled off the most-extraordinary finish.