The Olympics took over hours of my life last month. I would stay up until midnight watching, especially if swimming, gymnastics or volleyball were on. I would cut it on whenever I was home and procrastinate on work for the upcoming school year. Most of the time, especially in the evenings, my family was there with me as we rooted on Phelps, King, Ledecky, Biles, Raisman, Walsh-Jennings and the many other Team USA athletes. It made for better conversations than most prime-time television, was somewhat interactive as we high-fived and cheered the medalists, and definitely created some good family bonding.
One of my favorite parts of the Olympics is hearing the back stories of the athletes. The trials, the hardships, the obstacles, the hard work… all they had to overcome. But one competitor captured my heart more than the others. You may have guessed it… the most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps.
I love swimming. I started swimming on a summer team at 4-years-old and my childhood summers were spent at the pool. I even had the privilege of swimming on the same team and being coached by former Olympian Whitney Hedgepeth. I was a pretty decent swimmer, but I gave it up in high school, as my school didn’t have a team and my summers were overtaken with other things. But I love those memories… riding my bike to the pool for practice on warm summer mornings, writing our meet events on our arms with black Sharpie, filling our caps with water before suctioning them to our heads, and not worrying about tan lines from our Speedo goggles. So, needless to say, I have always enjoyed watching the Olympic swimmers compete. I remember when Michael Phelps seemed so young and innocent. I also remember him going through some rough times. But I didn’t know the extent of his struggles until I watched a documentary just before the Olympics and then continued to piece together his story over the 16-day Olympic span. If you missed his story, if you don’t know much about his past, I encourage you to look it up.
Some may want to write him off for a somewhat jaded past. I want to celebrate him. I want to present him as a role model.
Michael has two convictions involving drinking and driving. He was pictured on the front page of a tabloid smoking from a marijuana bong. And I call this man a role model? Indeed, I do.
Michael overcame. While his struggles date back to when he was still a teenager, things really seemed to spiral out of control for Michael after the 2012 Olympics. But before it was too late, with the help of friends, family, some rehabilitation and God, he persevered. He was determined to come back to the 2016 Olympics, at the age of 31, better than ever. He said he trained harder for Rio than he ever had. He was named swim team captain, a title he had hoped to have one day, and was even chosen to be the flag bearer for Team USA at the opening ceremonies. Two years earlier, he was at his lowest, standing in a Baltimore police station, wondering what his future would hold. His perseverance paid off, as he won medal after medal in Rio, while displaying class. He never denied his past, but embraced it.
And then there is the image of Michael sitting in the ready room prior to swimming the 200-meter butterfly semi-final, headphones pressed against his ears, hood up, game face on as South African rival Chad Le Clos, who beat him in the event in London in 2012, taunts him. Michael did not say a word. Michael stared straight ahead. Michael placed second in the semi-final, ahead of Le Clos, went on to take gold and left Le Close in the dust, medal-less in the event. So many of the competitors came out cocky or with an attitude, but not Phelps. Now he did give the number one “finger wag” AFTER the victory in the 200-meter fly, but I think he had earned that right. He was just stating the facts, after all.
Phelps left Rio with five gold medals, one silver and seemingly a sense of peace about his swimming career coming to a successful end. I loved watching his heartfelt post-swim interviews and his interaction with his teammates. I loved seeing him hug his mom, fiancé, and three-month-old son Boomer after every race, and watching him hold back tears during his final medal ceremony. I loved being a part of his career.
People began to fall in love with the 15-year-old Olympian in 2000. Over the years, he received judgement and criticism. Wouldn’t we all be unfairly judged and criticized if our lives were displayed for the whole world to see? His is a true coming of age story. We watched the boy become a man. And through it all, Michael Phelps never gave up. Hopefully those who gave up on him uncovered a valuable life lesson. In our deepest darkest times, when we don’t think we can go on, we have to carry the torch. We have to persevere.
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