Burnout Won't Stop Michael Phelps from Becoming the Greatest US Olympian Ever

Andrew GouldFeatured ColumnistJuly 31, 2012

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 30:  Michael Phelps of the United States reacts after he competed in the second semifinal heat of the Men's 200m Butterflyon Day 3 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre on July 30, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Let's not jump off the Michael Phelps bandwagon just yet.

After winning eight gold medals during the Beijing Games, the renowned swimmer had nowhere to go but down. But that doesn't mean we need to push his legacy underwater until it drowns.

The London Games have exposed the 27-year-old as a mere mortal who cannot win every single swimming competition known to man. Phelps failed to secure a spot on the podium following the 400-meter relay, where he only finished fourth.

The horror. Fourth? Do we need Ricky Bobby to explain the ugliness of fourth place?

Phelps somewhat redeemed himself by playing a part of a team that earned silver in the 4x100 freestyle relay. Four years after the U.S. stole the gold in a resounding finish, Team USA lost the lead to France during the final stretch.

Glory can shift hands with a fraction of a second. In one scenario, Phelps was a hero as he watched Jason Lezak win by a fingernail. Now, he's a goat for standing by as Ryan Lochte squandered a lead.

All of this can go away by the end of Tuesday. If Phelps wins two medals today, his 19 medals will place him at the pinnacle of Olympic excellence. And if Phelps picks up the most total medals in Olympic history, everyone needs to start praising him again as the greatest Olympian ever.

Phelps will compete in the 200-meter butterfly, an event he has owned in the past. As a teenager, Phelps scooped up gold at Athens in 2004 and repeated at the Beijing Games. If he delivers another top finish on Tuesday, he will tie Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina with an Olympic-high 18 medals.

And it might not take him long to seize the record for himself. On Tuesday night, Phelps will compete in the 4x200-meter freestyle, a team race that gives Phelps a solid chance to place in the top three.

By the end of the night, everyone will laugh off his fourth-place finish. By the end of the London Games, it will be nothing more than a fuzzy memory. Years down the line, it will be a mere afterthought during the Games where Phelps cemented his legendary legacy. 

A panic over finishing fourth displays just how amazing Phelps has performed during his career. Anything short of pure dominance during every second of every event falls short of our outlandish standards levied on superstars.

Call it the LeBron James Syndrome.

Like James, Phelps has become a polarizing figure that some Americans would rather not cheer on anymore. Maybe rooting for the favorite simply bores people, but others just find him arrogant and unlikable.

You don't need to like the guy. Just appreciate his greatness when he approaches the podium yet again.