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A Phelps Farewell: Reflecting on the Career of an American Legend

“After Michael Phelps is gone, why even bother having the Olympics?” I said that. I did not mean it. Well, maybe I meant it just a little bit.

The Olympics are great. Incredible, really. Dating all the way back to 776 BC, the Olympics have always celebrated human athleticism, the spirit of competition, and, in the modern years, they also serve to unite the nations of the world in a way that no diplomacy ever could. With so few certainties in the world we live in today, one thing we can count on is the Olympics occurring, every two years, with the exception of a World War or other international crisis. Not even the disastrous circumstances surrounding this summer’s Rio Games could halt the beloved tradition. Whether you watch the Olympics because they exemplify the belief that despite our differences, the citizens of our world still have much in common, or just because you still love seeing USA kick some Russian butt, it is hard not to love them.

Like it or not, Men’s Swimming has always been the main showcase of the Summer Games, some may even say the heart. And at the heart of Men’s Swimming is, and has been for the better half of the last sixteen years, Michael Phelps.

Michmedalsael Phelps is, to put it lightly, a phenomenon. The most decorated Olympian and most famous swimmer of all-time, it is not likely that we will see a talent comparable to his again in our lifetimes. In his 30 Olympic races, he has only failed to medal in two of them. The first of which was in his Olympic debut at just fifteen years old in Sydney, the second of which was in the 400 Individual Medley in 2012. The even more impressive feat is that out of his 28 medals, 23 of which have been gold. Phelps has proven time and time again that he does not just come to medal, he comes to win.

As a Massachusetts native coming of age in the early 21st century, I am no stranger to witnessing greatness in sports. I’ve grown up watching Tom Brady and Big Papi break records and curses, and I’ve seen my city bring home nine championship titles. I’ve always said that nothing quite compares to being a Boston sports fan, but Michael Phelps has definitely challenged that notion. Boston may have one of the most loyal fan bases, but it also has some of the fiercest rivals and most outspoken naysayers across the country. With Michael, however, we are all on the same team, as no one in their right mind cannot get behind this American legend or deny the excitement that he stirs up across the nation. Some of my favorite memories have been cheering him on like a maniac from my couch, oftentimes with people who have little appreciation for most other sports. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see him 160 compete times a year or even 16 times – only for a single week every four years. But boy, has he made it worth our time.

Everyone knows the story of 2008. Even I, a then 11-year-old trapped at an isolated summer camp for the better half of those Games, knows the story of 2008. Reaching his peak of physical fitness and preparedness, it is hard to deny that Phelps gave the greatest show of athleticism the world has even seen – the results speak for themselves. And while god-like Phelps appeared impervious to failure in the pool, he was far from it in his personal life. Multiple DUIs and the infamous photo of him smoking from a bong following the Beijing Games threatened to tarnish not only Phelps’ reputation, but also his mental health.

While many Americans stood by Michael during these tumultuous years, it was unclear if he would ever be able to return to the pool and compete at the same level that he once did. Phelps entered London with little training and a mindset that this one would be the last one. While he still came out on top in more than half of his events, Phelps was deemed “not what he used to be” after his crushing defeat in the 200m fly to South African swimmer Cleo De Clos. It was in this summer that I said my premature goodbyes to Michael and all that he had come to represent. I said goodbye to his mom and biggest fan, Debbie, who melts my heart. I said goodbye to the signature arm flaps he performs on the starting block prior to each race, and as Michael stood upon the highest podium and sang to The Star Spangled Banner for what seemed to be the last time, I cried along with him. It seemed that he was ready to be done with swimming, but we were certainly not ready to see him go.

Little did we know then that we had not seem the last of him. No, not by a long shot. While he was still the best in the world after London, Phelps knew that he had not given his best. In the years between London and Rio, he rehabbed it, found religion, got engaged, and welcomed son, Boomer, into the world. He’s taken 5 more gold this Olympics and reclaimed his title as the 200m fly champion. Recently celebrating his thirty-first birthday, he’s now an old man by Olympic standards and competed with and against swimmers nearly half his age – swimmers, in fact, that have looked up to him since they were mere guppies. As his 21-year-old relay teammate Ryan Held sobbed upon receiving his first gold medal, Phelps playfully chuckled and hugged him in a distinctly big brother fashion.

phelps face“For success, attitude is equally as important as ability”. Phelps’ ability is glaringly obvious, but his attitude may just be what has set him apart. For example, there is “being in the zone”, and then there is Michael Phelps. Like so many other things, Michael has always taken intensity to the next level. While his teammates could be found chatting and laughing during their warmups and his competitors could be found taunting him relentlessly (looking at you, le Clos), Michael would always be found with his hood up and headphones on, face as hard as stone. Though he may seem super-human, Phelps’ nerves were palpable before each race, making it all the more fun to watch him crush the competition. And while being the best at what you do allows for a certain degree of fanfare, Phelps has always been a relatively humble guy, all things considered. Sure, reaching that 20th gold medal warrants some celebration, but never has he come anywhere close to a “King James” display of pride. Winning gold never gets old for Phelps either – he’s treated every medal ceremony as the surreal moment that it is, overcome with emotion each time.

America truly loves Michael. We love him because he’s the best, of course –  everything we wish we could be – but we also love him because he is someone who has fallen, failed, and proven that he has the guts and determination to get back up again. We love him because for someone who is so out-of-this-world talented, he is also so distinctly human.

phelps famMost people speculate that this Olympics will really be Phelps’ last, and as much as Ryan Lochte (and I) would  love to insist that he’ll be back for Tokyo 2020, Phelps has promised he is done. As the swimming portion of the Rio Olympics concluded, he appeared visibly fatigued, but what we saw this week was far from a victory lap – he has proven that even if he isn’t quite what he used to be at 23, he still is the best of the best. There is absolutely no shame in walking away from the sport after his spectacular showing at these Games, and many would say it’s the smart move, for retiring now with his head held high assures that he will go out on top, with the most remarkable of legacies. Sooner or later, we will have to face the day when the Summer Olympics do not include Michael Phelps, or Debbie Phelps, or those crazy arm flaps, but this time I’m not saying a tearful goodbye to Michael, rather a “thank you” for one more incredible show.


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