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.
Like the blog? Buy the book.
*Back to regularly scheduled ramblings next post. I was feeling rambly. Blame Phelps—or better yet—NBC.
As a fellow athlete, a loud amen, Abby. So well-said. I think you’re right. we expect way too much from our heroes, forgetting to cut them the slack they need to change and move on not just as swimmers or athletes, but as humans. I don’t think his heart was in it during the training. . . which like you said, isn’t to say that he wasn’t giving his best yesterday. It’s just that his best is no longer the best. Because he too is tired.
Exactly. It’s just as mental as physical–if not more–and I can’t imagine how exhausting it is.
I guess I must live under a rock. Would explain the moldy smell…
I too was a swimmer. Not as good as you were, but a swimmer none the less. As a grown up (ha! me – and the term grown-up: hilarious!) I returned to swimming and joined a power swim club. 3 mornings per week I was jumping in the pool at 6 am to bust out a good 100-lap wake-up call. I loved it. I love the smell of chlorine! I admit, I totally do! And miss it. But not enough to jump in a pool at 6 am… Why always so early?
p.s. I never could rock the fly!
Ha! You do live on a boat though, so you’re excused 😉 My practices were nothing in comparison. Imagine getting in the water every freaking morning for at least three hours, resting a bit and then doing it all over again in the afternoon for hours every day for your whole freaking life. All these athletes–every single one of them–are pretty remarkable. That’s why I never fault anyone who wants to hang it up. We have no clue what they must go through.
Oh I totally get it! We give up over so little of an uphill battle and if one of these guys decide to retire you’d think they were letting their whole country down…
I was sad to see the coverage about him ‘not winning’. He made it to the Olympics and making it means you are far and above uber talented. I wonder how many athletes get ulcers b/c just listening to the crap said about them PLUS what they actually do is enough to send me to the loony bin. Excellent post!
“Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should.” <- Love this.
There are always people around who are happy to let you know how you're squandering your God-given talents. Why can't we give each other permission to do what we love and to stop when we don't love doing it?
I think it’s a selfish thing, and I don’t mean that in a condescending or necessarily negative light. We want heroes. We want people to keep writing the novels we love or making the movies we watch, because selfishly, it’s our pleasure. We can’t win medals or always write best-selling novels. They can. But that doesn’t mean they have to (in my humble opinion.)
He lives very near us so we hear even more about him than other markets and you are spot on. He was tired. He wasn’t even going to come back. And at the nth hour, he decided one more time – quite possibly more due to the urging of his family and friends than anything else. After all, he lost to someone from his own team, older than he is. He just didn’t get into the shape maybe he should of.
Oh well. He’s already proven he can be amazing and put in the time and sacrifice, which is more than most of us ever do.
Agreed. And I expect you to become a stalker and put a piece of chewed up gum from Phelps on eBay or something.
Of all the Phelpsian posts (what? it totally is too a word!) this has been my favorite. It’s not so much about being old, or thinking he is “too good” to train. In my humble opinion, he’s suffering an exhaustion of spirit – and in our society that’s not acknowledged as even a possibility.
Great post, anyway.
Thank you so much for your comment, although “Phelpsian” reminds me of “thespian” and nowI feel like I have to edit this to make it more about dramatic theater or something 😉
Phelps is a legend. He did change the sport. The fame and fortune that was supposed to beset Mark Spitz, Matt Biondi, Rowdy Gaines, and others never happened. It was Micheal Phelps domination. He has nothing to prove. I’m sick of the athletes blogging about him saying he’s stuck up or aloof or not cool, whatever. He’s tired and he’s ready for the enxt phase of his life.
awesome, abs…I had no clue you were a fish in high school. That’s great. I was friends with two swimmers as a teenager and they had virtually no lives outside the pool. I’d see them in class and then never again unless they lifeguarded at my neighborhood pool.
Coming from the Sprocket Ink Sports Guru, I appreciate you comment and humble praise. Any time someone doesn’t act the way they’re “supposed” to in the spotlight, they’re “aloof.” He might be that way–who knows?–but if anyone earned it, it’s him.
He is not the world’s most articulate dude (proving the only sport I could medal in is judgment), but he can swim. I can’t even float, I defy the laws of physics.
I’m rooting for him to win more medals, both for him and to make people shut up. I hope he’s not paying any attention to the media. And I hope he gets this done and retires in peace to work with kids, or just sit on his couch and smoke his bong, it’s really none of my business.
While I don’t want them to all be idiots, I also don’t expect athletes to be particularly articulate. There are quite a few who excel in the PR department, but most of them leave that talent on the field (or in the pool, in this case.) I’m sure he can’t escape all the media crap, but I also read that he didn’t even know he was three medals away from the all-time record, so maybe he does (purposely) stay rather sheltered. I wouldn’t blame him.
I agree with your post! He has set amazing records and has every right to be tired!
I completely feel you here. He just doesn’t seem that happy about being there, especially compared to Ryan who is beyond confident. There’s just too much pressure. I didn’t know a lot of those things you mentioned about Phelps, now I feel bad for the guy.
Great post, Abby. As a fellow high school swimmer I rememebr the feeling of horrible injustice that I was spending spring break with not one but TWo practices a day so I can’t even begin to imagine the dedication it would take to make it to the Olympics. But people will judge.
I’m with whoever mentioned his family. His mother is already nagging at him to go to Rio and compete again in 4 years. At what point have you repaid a parent’s support and are allowed to get on with your own life? For Phelps, I think that time is now.
Overjoyed to be living under my rock. teehee!
“I don’t think he wanted to compete in London as much as he felt that he should” — ya know…. you’re right. He really does look like he’s just going through the motions.
“Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should. ” I read an article somewhere (I’m sure by super smart people) that was saying that success has a lot to do with saying “no” to things. Like, the most successful people are those that can choose what they should give their attention to. I’m SUPER terrible at that. Not lookin’ good.
well said. one of the reasons i don’t watch the olympics is because of all the focus on the gold medal winners and how the media seems to look “down” on everyone else. to just to qualify for the olympics is a major accomplishment let alone winning any medal even the non-gold ones. can’t we just celebrate individuals just going out there and giving it there all??? michael phelp’s contributions out of the pool are what make him a true champion still – at least IMHO
I have an issue with harping on the athletes you HAVEN’T won more than celebrating the athletes who won. Those who won deserve the attention 100 percent, but just because someone didn’t live up to the expectations is no reason to continue to cover that aspect.
I loved this post. My little brother is an athlete. He’s a speed skater training in Salt Lake City and he hopes to be in the Olympics someday. I have watched many of his races. I’ve watched him win and I’ve watched him lose. I’ve also seen him come so very close to winning and end up in 4th place. It is heartbreaking watching your loved one go through so much disappointment in themselves. They get upset, angry, and just plain disgusted with themselves. They feel they’ve let themselves and their family down. It’s a lot of pressure and sometimes it’s not that you didn’t train enough or you don’t want it enough, sometimes it’s just a bad day. Everyone has a bad day, even professional athletes. I felt so bad for Michael Phelps I could have cried. One, because he lives extremely close to me and it’s hometown pride, two, because my little brother looks eerily similar to him, and three, because watching my brother train and skate has given me a true appreciation for what these athletes go through. Michael is a fabulous swimmer and though the media/people will toss him to the side because he’s no longer the best, no one can take away his prior amazing performances and not too many people have one gold medal let alone several. I completely understand that he’s tired of swimming and I don’t blame him. One day my brother will tire of skating, and when he does, I’ll support his decision wholeheartedly. No one wants to have to compete forever.
I think you’re a new commenter here, so thanks so much for stopping by. This is a very insightful perspective, and I wish your brother good luck. So very cool!
I can’t imagine the dedication it takes to get anywhere near where Michael Phelps is in the first place. I agree, people are taking his loss way too personally and need to leave the poor guy alone.
He seemed more present in the relay race last night, cheering on his teammates. He had said he didn’t want to race the 400 IM after 08, and I really wonder if he was pressured into it so everyone could play up a Phelps/Lochte rivalry. In any case, he’s earned the right to do what he wants. When I saw his mom publicly talking about pressuring him to go to Rio it made me cringe. That only encourages the rest of us to behave that way.
Exactly. This post was already ridiculously long so I didn’t add that he hates that event and had only really been training specifically for it for the past few months, whereas Lochte made it his focus for four years. Not an excuse by any means, but I agree with the pressure crap.
I also saw that bit about his mom and totally cringed. I saw he buys here a damn ticket to Rio to go watch the game and takes a vacation himself.
I think it was me you were referring to about living under a rock because I had no idea 🙂 I don’t watch much tv nor am I really into the Olympics. Who is Michael Phelps anyway? ha. Just kidding, I’m not *that* far removed from reality*….at least not yet 🙂
Thank you Abby!
Gosh – drives me crazy about the Olympics that people get so “forgetful” that just BEING there is amazing. Awe-some.
And with swimming it’s just a matter of seconds –well fractions of a second — and people give flack as if the time isn’t amazing enough as it is.
Also- it took some of the shine away from Lochte and that was just irritating.
Great perspective on this subject.
I recently fell out of love with running and am struggling to stick with it. I want to do it, but won’t force myself and make it feel like a chore when my body is arguing against the whole running concept.
Thanks for the reminder that we sometimes need to look at things from a different angle to understand.
I’m sorry to hear that you’ve lost some of your running mojo, but sometimes you just need a break. There’s a difference between not running because you feel “lazy” and not running because you’re heart’s just not in it. You know what you want to do–or not do–and what will make you feel best. Good luck 🙂
I can vouch for what Abby said. Sometimes you just need a break. It’s not always easy to listen to our body, especially when it’s crying out for a rest, but sometimes it’s better to tune in and wind down a little. I am also a runner and have experienced major running lows, especially when I am training hard and I’m simply exhausted.
When I get like this, I have a little word in my own ear, and assure myself that I know best.
I like that “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” business. It makes me feel less guilty for quitting the stuff I’ve been over. Besides, that just makes time for something new.
I was on the swim team growing up – until I moved to a place where it’s cold in winter and they didn’t have an indoor pool.
I was le done.