There's still time for Michael Phelps to prove to America that he's still the legendary Olympic hero he became over the course of the last eight years.
He doesn't have much time, but he still has some. The first step is dominating in the 200-meter butterfly.
First come the semifinals, which will happen on Monday night. From a field of 16, eight will advance to the finals, and Phelps is all but assured of being one of those eight.
The finals—which will be broadcast on Tuesday on NBC from 8 p.m.-12 a.m. ET and will be aired live on NBCOlympics.com's stream at 2:30 p.m. ET—have massive implications for Phelps, not only in terms of his legacy but in terms of his mental state for the remainder of these Olympic Games.
Right now, the swimming-related Olympic dialogue is dominated by talk of Phelps' "downfall." That's not entirely fair. Phelps isn't in the midst of a downfall. He's just four years older than he was when he ruled the world in 2008, and four years on a swimmer amounts to a lot of mileage.
But that doesn't mean he's over. It may just mean that the expectations for him entering the 2012 Games were a little too high.
Phelps got off on the wrong foot in London, through no fault of his own. It just so happened that the toughest event for him—the 400-meter individual medley—was his first event, the event that set the tone. It was an event he intended to drop from his repertoire after he set the world record in it during the 2008 Games, according to the Associated Press.
But Phelps had a change of heart shortly before London—and not long enough before London. He didn't leave himself enough time to properly train for the 400 IM, according to the AP, which can explain his near-failure to qualify and his disappointing fourth-place finish.
Just because Phelps didn't medal in a tough event—an event in which he had no business participating in the first place—certainly doesn't mean he's not capable of medaling in anything this summer. Deep down, Phelps has to know that. He probably isn't all that concerned with whether or not people think he's finished, or whether or not people think Ryan Lochte is bound to upstage him throughout the entirety of these Games.
But even if he's tuning out all the voices and the pressure, medaling in the butterfly final on Tuesday would really help his cause.
During Monday's preliminary heats in the 200-meter fly, Phelps registered the fifth-fastest time, according to Reuters, and in his heat, he finished third behind Austrian Dinko Jukic and American Tyler Clary. Per Reuters, Phelps wasn't even giving it his all during the preliminaries. Fifth place could have easily been fourth or third.
Where will Michael Phelps finish in the 200-meter butterfly?
All that matters is that Phelps qualified for Monday's semifinals. Barring a complete and utter disaster, he'll move on from there to swim in Tuesday's final.
That's when the pressure will really be on. The 200-meter butterfly is Phelps' event. According to the Guardian, he hasn't lost in the 200m fly at an Olympics or at a World Championships since 2001. This event is where he truly shines. This is his wheelhouse.
Obviously, Phelps is aiming for the gold. If he doesn't win the gold, medaling will suffice. But if he somehow doesn't medal, that is when it will be all but official that Phelps just doesn't have it anymore.
The 400-meter IM didn't really matter, but this event does. Phelps needs to swim well in this event, or else. If he doesn't, all of the talking heads and all of the critics will be right. If he fails, his worst fears—and the fears of swimming fans nationwide—will be proven true.
If Phelps doesn't earn a medal in the 200-meter butterfly, the downfall of one of the greatest swimmers in history will be a fact, not a figment of our imaginations.
No pressure or anything.