I wasn’t going to write anything about the Olympics because a) I don’t watch them that much b) there’s a saturation of coverage already and c) it’s hard to find a way to make it all about me.
But thanks to Michael Phelps, I found a way! So if this post is lame, blame him, as everyone seems to be doing that in some way, shape or form already anyway.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock—no judgment, as I can imagine it’s nice and quiet under there—you know that he failed to medal in his first race this Olympics, the 400 IM. American Ryan Lochte took gold, and two other people with names I won’t attempt to spell took the other two pieces of hardware.
There was a bit of an uproar. “He didn’t try hard enough!” “What’s his problem…doesn’t he want it?”
Let’s come up for air a minute, people.
This isn’t 2008 when he accomplished complete and utter domination of the sport and came home with eight gold medals to prove it. While everyone said that they didn’t expect a repeat gold medal run, the fact that he didn’t dominate in his first race has already raised some concerns.
I get it.
We all have idols we put on such pedestals that when they fail to reach the superhuman standards that are placed on them—by fans, coaches, family, themselves—and remind us that they’re human, we’re disappointed.
He considered retirement in 2009. He was tired. He had accomplished everything he had set out to do. He was scrutinized after he was photographed practicing breathing techniques (ahem) on a bong.
I read comments he recently made that getting out of a warm bed and into cold water every early morning since the age of seven takes it’s toll. He told the story of being on vacation and having everyone tell him to go swim in the ocean but wanting to stay on the shore. Getting wet was the last thing he wanted to do.
I can relate, on a very minor scale.
I was a swimmer in high school, and although I wasn’t fabulous, I was All-City and had a school record. The training was ridiculous—5 am practices before school, two hour practices after, dry land work, summer camps—and I constantly reeked of chlorine. But while I enjoyed the sport, I didn’t swim my senior year.
The reasons were varied, but I was just tired of everything swimming and tired—period. While I had support, others freaked out and I was also told I was insane, that I had talent I was wasting, that it was selfish not to compete, that I was lazy.
Maybe they were right — maybe it was a waste — but I never regretted my choice. My heart wasn’t in it anymore — to this day I have no interest in water — and a lesson I learned is:
Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should.
The same thing goes for Phelps. I don’t think he wanted to compete in London as much as he felt that he should, and I have no doubt that some of the rumors about less-than excellent training are true. From his interviews, body language and other speculative things that hold no weight, he looks like someone going through the motions.
But no athlete wants to lose—ever—and I can guarantee that no one is more disappointed than Phelps about that race. And at the time of this writing, he still has six more to go, six races I’m sure he will give all he has.
If you’ve never swam fly, you have no clue of pain.
When he was 16, he told an agent that he wasn’t worried about winning medals—although today he’s three away from becoming the most decorated Olympic athlete ever—but instead, "I want to change the sport of swimming."
And whether you like him or not, he’s done that with each race he’s won. He’s done that by establishing the Michael Phelps Foundation that provides swim programs at Boys & Girls Clubs nationwide. He’s done that by making the sport relevant through his accomplishments.
While it’s a “what have you done for me lately” culture and he might not be doing as much, what he’s done in the past has changed the sport of swimming—for the better— but he’s also changed as well.
He is human, but if history is any sort of indication, he’ll do his best each race this year to show us that he’s not.
He’ll remind us he’s still Michael Phelps.
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*Back to regularly scheduled ramblings next post. I was feeling rambly. Blame Phelps—or better yet—NBC.