Originally posted on FOX Sports  |  Last updated 4/16/12
Proprietary rights have made watching Olympic highlights almost impossible. YouTube, where typing "squirrel skiing" yields a shocking seven pages of results, has no visual evidence of the entire four minutes and 3.84 seconds that was the 400-meter individual medley at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing for Michael Phelps. This is how I found myself listening to Linkin Park singing "Pushing Me Away" about 100 times recently as Phelps' first (of a record-setting eight) gold medals in Beijing played in tiny non-copyright-violating snippets on my computer screen. He produced so much amazing four years ago that details run together. All that remains of that dominance is a two-second snippet -- him alone in a frame, nobody even close as he easily wins and Linkin Park sings. There is something prescient about the lyrics, like whoever threw together this YouTube tribute to Phelps knew what was coming four years later. Because as we approach 100 days from what Phelps says unequivocally will be his final Olympics, he is once again staring down his nemesis -- the 400 IM -- a race he swore off after dominating it in 2008. And this is what has changed in four years. Before, this race was proof of his excellence. Now it is a test of his finishing power. "This isn't always comfortable and isn't always relaxing and it is the truth," Phelps said recently. "It is probably not my first choice. But it really does give us an honest idea of where we stand, and honesty may not always be the best thing for me right now. But that can be a slap in the face here and there. But I need it right now." Two things you have to know about Phelps and this race: The first? He had sworn off the 400 IM after Beijing despite crushing his world record and the field. "He told me after 2008 he was never going to swim the four-IM again," fellow American and 400-IMer, Ryan Lochte explained. "Doing the four-IM is a challenge. It is one of the hardest events out there. It's brutal ... not many people will be able to sacrifice their body for that much amount of pain for that long." Is there a part of the race where you start to hate it? "Yeah," Lochte said, "from the start to finish." To understand why an elite athlete like Phelps walks away from an event he had absolutely dominated, you have to understand the event and what an absolute beast it is. It is 100 meters of butterfly, the most physically punishing of the strokes, followed by 100 meters of backstroke, which is typically a specialty stroke, followed by 100 meters of breaststroke (the most technical of the strokes) and concluded with 100 meters of freestyle, which under normal circumstances would be easy. But most swimmers are so exhausted by this point that the freestyle legs feel like they're trudging through mud. It is maybe the most perfect athletic endeavor in this way, a test not simply of ability but determination. "When I was growing up, a 400 IMer was a breaststroker with endurance. Now you have to be able to do everything," Phelps coach Bob Bowman said. "I think it's the most interesting race for me because it has all of the strokes, has an element of speed and you have to have endurance." The other thing you have to know is Phelps is considering swimming the event once again in London. The mere thought of this is tantalizing, the greatest swimmer against the hardest event. It is like one of those Man vs. Wild or Man vs. Food TV shows that we all seem to love. Only this is not four years ago. The world has gotten faster, and Phelps has learned how difficult Man vs. Himself really is. This is a guy who for a long time had a picture of Ian Thorpe hanging on his wall for motivation. How does one exactly hang a picture of oneself? "I guess in the past I didn't really care what I was doing. And if I swam bad, I was like 'Ah, whatever'. Now, it is hitting home to me and frustrating me, and shows I have the passion back that I once had as a kid." This is the greatest swimmer in the world, just a few weeks ago, admitting what all of us in attendance and what anybody who even remotely follows swimming in between Olympics knows -- he has not been himself since Beijing. If the last time you paid attention to Phelps was in a Subway ad, or China, you missed him getting his butt whipped at the World Championships in Shanghai a year ago. It has been a strange four years in that regard for Phelps, who has been good enough to get by and yet not quite been himself. The thought was always, if he was even training a little, he'd be able to dominate in London. This is why the 400 IM is big. It is a sign that Phelps is serious. And it is starting to hit him, too, how all of this is his last time doing this or his last time doing that. He talked openly of this nostalgia in Indianapolis. It was here where it all began, where his name remains painted on the wall, a lasting reminder of making his first Olympic team. "I remember when my name got painted on the wall, 12 years ago that is crazy," Phelps said. "I remember making my Olympic team here and warming down afterwards. I remember everything, what lane I was in ..." He has been writing his memories down lately, by hand, in a black journal that he takes with him everywhere. "I used to hold everything in and it would frustrate me or I wouldn't remember things," Phelps said. "Lately, I feel like I am kind of growing up. Whenever I feel like I have something in my head that I want to write down and get out of my head, I just sit and write." It is just another sign of a guy who realizes "why I never walked away, why I played myself this way" -- oddly enough another fitting lyric from that Linkin Park track pulsating. He knows -- perhaps better than anybody else knows, because he is better than anybody else at it -- that how you finish is how you are remembered.
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