Michael Phelps has won 22 Olympic gold medals and counting… And that’s not the story.
I’ve taken some shots at Michael in the past. He knows it, I know it, anyone who reads what I write knows it. He didn’t like it. I wouldn’t have liked it either, but the words back then stand. The criticism was written roughly between the years 2009-2014. Not his finest half-decade, he’ll be the first to admit. There were some dark times in there, and no one likes to have a spotlight shined on his darkness.
Now’s time to shed some light.
Michael Phelps is having perhaps the second best Olympics of any swimmer ever. Surpassed only by his unsurpassable performance eight years ago in Beijing. Maybe his Games in 2004 in Athens will go down as the superior second best based on pure medal count. He did win six gold back then, along with that ’04 bronze in the 200 free – which was really his best race of all, in terms of ballsiness. But this time around it’s all different.
He’s seems to be a guy with hard-earned perspective. A guy who’s worked for what he’s achieving. A guy who appreciates it.
This was not always the case.
Four years ago it looked like the sad swan song of a surly champion. It looked like that because that’s what it was. He was a champion who’d done it all and had grown resentful about still having to do it. We all saw it. Bob Bowman would be the first to admit it. Now Michael does too.
In the Bob Costas feature that aired soon before his 200 IM gold, he spoke of that downward spiral, of not wanting to leave his room or see anyone or, really, even continue living. He had those dark times in common with his longtime training buddy and close friend Allison Schmitt. Whatever happened after London to the two of them, it wasn’t pretty. They descended from a golden victory lap into desperate straits. That unhealthy dichotomy is worthy of a close look by anyone who cares about the afterlife of these champions we worship on the Olympic stage. It’s seldom pretty, and it’s a lot more frequent than anyone cares to admit.
This is why Phelps circa 2016 is worthy of a new kind of spotlight. Who cares if he’s adding to his already unmatchable medal total? It’s stunning and lovely to see, but that is not the story at all. It’s the fact that he now has his priorities in order. Listen to his roll call of thank-yous: Healthy kid, beautiful wife-to-be, family and friends who love and understand him.
Beyond that, who cares?
Beyond that nothing else matters. And these days Michael seems to be thankful for that more than anything else.