This is an excerpt from my book, The Pursuit Of Excellence
Heading into the London Olympics in 2012, Michael Phelps was at the height of his powers as the most dominant swimmer in history. Four years before at the Olympics in Beijing, Phelps won gold in all eight events in which he competed. In doing so, he broke Mark Spitz’s record from 1972 for the most gold medals won in a single Olympics, as well as setting the record for the most career gold medals by any single Olympian, with 14. His performance in Beijing was not only perfect from the perspective of the medal stand; it was record-breaking. Of his eight gold medal swims, seven set new world records, and the eighth (100-meter butterfly) set a new Olympic record. Arriving in London in 2012, Michael Phelps was the personification of unbeatable. Until he wasn’t. In the final for Phelps’s signature event, the men’s 200-meter butterfly, South African Chad le Clos shocked himself, Phelps, and the rest of the world by out-touching Phelps at the wall for the gold. The margin of le Clos’s victory was razor-thin: five-hundredths of a second. It had been over a decade since Phelps had lost in the 200-meter butterfly event at the World Championships or Olympic level. During an interview with Bob Costas after his last event at the London Olympics, Phelps announced he was retiring from competitive swimming. “This was the last medal I will ever swim for,” he said, holding up one of his four gold medals.
Phelps’s retirement didn’t last long. By 2014, he was back, but with no mention of the next Olympics. Even more to the point, Phelps was clear: he would never compete in the 200-meter butterfly event again. A year later, he finally acknowledged that he had his sights set on returning for his fifth Olympic games: the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His loss to le Clos in London and “his (lack of serious) preparation for those London Games” fueled his desire to return. In a media report that May, Phelps announced he had changed his mind about the 200-meter butterfly as well.
He would be back to race after all, noting the relatively static nature of the times that were winning the 200-meter butterfly when compared to those in 2000 when Phelps made his first Olympic appearance. “It’s still not that fast an event,” he said. Phelps’s remarks captured the attention of le Clos, who was not shy about his eagerness to beat the great Michael Phelps again. While at the World Championships, le Clos responded with bravado: “He’s been talking a lot of smack in the media about how slow the butterfly is, so I just can’t wait until I race him.” In another interview, le Clos ramped it up even more: “Next year [at Rio] is going to be Muhammed Ali–Joe Frazier. Look, I don’t want to say it’s easy to swim by yourself [against lesser competition at the US Championships than at Worlds], but it’s a lot harder when you know Chad le Clos is coming back at you the last 50 meters. That’s what he’s got to think about really.”
The Build Up
The buildup for the Phelps–le Clos rematch in Rio was tremendous. In the warm-up room before their semifinal event, the broadcast captured Phelps staring intensely from under his hood and headphones at le Clos, who appeared loose and at ease while shadowboxing in front of where Phelps sat. The image quickly went viral as an instant classic meme: the Phelps Death Stare. The finals race the following night did not disappoint. The two competitors were in adjacent lanes: Phelps in lane five, le Clos in lane six. At the halfway point, Phelps held a half-second lead over le Clos, who was in third place. By the third and final flip turn, le Clos was in second, but the gap between him and Phelps had grown to two-thirds of a second. At the finish, Phelps had reclaimed his Olympic title, barely holding off the second-place swimmer from Japan by four-hundredths of a second. Chad le Clos, the defending Olympic gold medalist, finished off the medal podium, in fourth place. As the swimmers came down the stretch for the last 25 meters, photographer David Ramos captured an iconic photo (see above). In it, you see le Clos looking to his left, watching Phelps as he is pulling away. And Phelps? He’s staring directly at his target: the wall. The time for Phelps to be focused on le Clos had been the day before in the warm-up room. At the moment of truth, there in the pool, Phelps’s gaze had a singular focus: on getting to the wall first and winning the gold medal.
Le Clos, like many of us in our daily lives, divided his focus. Instead of focusing singularly on his stroke and using it to get to the wall as fast as possible, he gave away moments of focus to check on his rival swimming next to him. The result? He went from second place to no medal. Having a singular focus is a fight each day. In a world of never-ending alerts and the ability to get whatever we want from an app (A ride? Uber. A meal? DoorDash. A date? Tinder. A vacation rental? Airbnb.), we are in a constant battle against distraction. But excellence requires discipline in where you put your focus. A divided focus, sometimes even for just a split second, is enough to make you miss your mark.