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Michael Phelps: Reflections On The Gold Standard

July 15, 2016
"Advertising signs that con you 
Into thinking you're the one 
That can do what's never been done 
That can win what's never been won 
Meantime life outside goes on 
All around you." 
- It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) by Bob Dylan, 1965

Working the first two of Michael Phelps' five Olympiads, while Eminem served as his soundtrack, I always felt the urge to reference the above lines from the modern bard, because Phelps so confounded them. 

He entered our consciousness in 2000 as America's youngest male Olympian in more than a half century. He was 16 when he became a professional pitchman, 18 when he asserted himself as the best all-around swimmer ever and 23 when he won an unprecedented eight gold medals at the 2008 Games in Beijing. Now he is poised to claim another five or even six gold medals at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. 

He has always been able to do what's never been done, win what's never been won. 

And now, at long last, he's got a life, too. 

After a mixed performance at the 2012 Olympics, Phelps couldn't flee London fast enough. Now, at the ripe old age of 31, he'll be just as eager to leave Rio, not because of a prying press or the weight of expectations or the Zika virus, but because there is a fresh existence in Arizona, with a fiancée and infant son and family back in Baltimore, including his mother, Debbie, and father, Fred, whom it took the longest time to embrace. 

Phelps sounds introspective, to the point that while he might not reference long walks on the beach, he gets as sentimental as the next guy about ... sunsets. 

"Living in Scottsdale is great," Phelps said in March, as the media hype for Rio began. "People don't just ask for a picture, they want to shake your hand. Golf year round is nice; it's easy to get out. The sunsets are amazing too, Camelback Mountain out your window." 

Motivations

Phelps voiced those sentiments in Los Angeles. He had begun the day in Locust Point, at Under Armour headquarters, for the premiere of a 90-second "Rule Yourself" spot that underscores the rigor of his existence. 

Phelps has been an endorser for Kevin Plank's UA empire since 2010, and his gold medals during that time stand in contrast to the recent silvers and near-misses of some of the company's other star pitchmen -- Cam Newton in the Super Bowl; Steph Curry in the NBA Finals, and golfer Jordan Spieth stumbling during this year's Masters. And while being a standard-bearer for the hometown brand certainly has cache, the question remains: What makes Phelps swim this time around?

Driven by the desire to keep getting faster in his teens and early 20s, he produced 29 individual world-record swims -- but none since 2009. Minutes and seconds on a scoreboard, however, are not the times about which Phelps obsesses. He wants to replace the bad memories of 2012 -- when an ineffectual approach led to an upset loss to South African Chad le Clos in the 200-meter butterfly -- with new ones to share one day with Boomer Phelps, born May 5. 

"I want to do it the way we should have in 2012," Phelps said of a short-lived retirement. 

There is also more history to make. 

The only male swimmer to win gold in an individual event in three straight Olympics, doing so in both the 100 butterfly and 200 individual medley, Phelps can match the four-peats of two track and field legends, Al Oerter in the discus and Carl Lewis in the long jump. 

Lewis' inspiration was Jesse Owens. The former won nine gold medals, the latter four. Combine them with the five won by Johnny Weissmuller, the greatest Tarzan of all, and you get 18 gold medals. That's Phelps' total, testament not just to ambition and talent, but to longevity, as the 31-year-old will get three chances in Rio (100 and 200 butterflys, 200 IM) to become the oldest Olympic swim champion in an individual event. 

When Bob Bowman, his coach since 1996, told an 11-year-old that if he worked hard he had the chance to represent his country in the Olympics, did he envision it would happen a record five times? 

"No way," Bowman said during a phone interview a few days before the start of the U.S. Trials in Omaha, Neb. "No way. It is kind of surreal for me to hold the baby [Boomer]. Michael was a kid when we started. He was just a baby in 2000, and we're still doing it? That kind of blows my mind." 

Staying Power

When Phelps, just 15 and with an excused absence from the start of his sophomore year at Towson High School, finished fifth in the 200 butterfly at the 2000 Olympics, the Ravens had never been to the NFL postseason, Juan Dixon was a junior at the University of Maryland and Manny Machado was 8 years old. 

Those Games were in Sydney, where 17-year-old Australian Ian Thorpe, celebrated for his freestyle excellence and marketing savvy, served as the template for Team Phelps. 

"While every other kid in high school is figuring out how they're going to make their mark on the world, those guys were already doing it at 16," said Tom Hannan, an alumnus of Mount St. Joseph High School who won medley relay gold at those 2000 Olympics. "To take swimming from essentially an amateur sport to a professional one, like Michael has, and to be the most popular person your sport has ever seen. … 

"To not be leaving with a bitter taste in your mouth, to [swim] as fast and as far at the end, to leave on your terms, not many people get to do that in our sport." 

While fans of the Orioles, Ravens and Terps are soothed by "Wait ‘til next year," Phelps has delivered in a "wait four years" crucible. 

"This sport," NBC analyst Rowdy Gaines said, "is not for the faint of heart. It can chew you up." 

Eclipsed by Phelps and hounded by the Australian media, Thorpe checked into rehab and eventually came out of the closet about his sexuality. 

Phelps' own demons grew, along with society's ability to follow them. 

TMZ, which upped the ante for video and audio of celebrity screw-ups, was a year from opening shop in 2004, when Phelps, three months after winning six gold medals at the Athens Olympics, was charged with a DUI in Salisbury, Md. There was the photo in a London tabloid of Phelps smoking a bong in 2009, which led to the first of two suspensions from USA Swimming. The second suspension came in October 2014, after a drunken-driving arrest in Baltimore. Security video documented his SUV careening through the Fort McHenry Tunnel following a night of partying at the Horseshoe Casino. His blood alcohol level tested at 0.14, nearly twice the allowable limit in Maryland. 

Phelps entered a rehabilitation facility in Arizona, and a year later shared the details of his descent and recovery with Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated, the most poignant passages involving mending his relationship with his father, from whom he had been long estranged. Gone are the days when he went to the pool with a hangover, as Phelps says he has not had a drink since 2014. 

In 2005, to prepare for Beijing, Phelps and Bowman relocated their training base from the Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center to the University of Michigan. Now Bowman is the coach of Arizona State University, and a change of scenery is working again. Phelps is engaged to Nicole Johnson, Miss California 2010, and the social media that mocked him now lights up over Boomer, who has Phelps' engaging competitors and fans and taking stock. 

"I've been able to realize what I've accomplished," Phelps said during Nicole's pregnancy. "For so long, it was one meet to the next, one event to the next, one medal to the next. A lot of it was a blur, already looking to the next thing. When we moved to Arizona, I looked at all those medals, said, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool.' I can remember my facial expression for every medal ceremony." 

Gaines, who won three gold medals at the 1984 Olympics, has called every important international race of Phelps' career. 

"The transformation has been incredible," Gaines said. "He's more relaxed about being in his own skin, about being Michael Phelps. Children change your perspective. As clichéd as it sounds, it changes everything. In the grand scheme of things, swimming from one side of a pool to see who is fastest. ... Family provides perspective, not as a son or a brother, but as a father. 

"He's faced adversity, some of it self-imposed. More than anything, he just grew up. By the time you're 30, you don't feel the need to be in a bar at 2:30 in the morning." 

Team Player

Contrast the further maturation of Phelps, from teen bent not just on beating international rivals but destroying them, to elder statesman who nurtures dreams around the world. 

In 2004, his North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammates struggled in his shadow, as a nationally ranked training partner failed to get to Athens and Katie Hoff succumbed to the pressure there. Now Chase Kalisz can give the NBAC another gold medal in the 400 IM to go along with the two Phelps won in Athens and Beijing. 

While Phelps makes his residence in Arizona, he continues to represent the NBAC. Its base -- and the home of the Michael Phelps Swim School -- remains with Meadowbrook. He and Bowman, through their joint business, Aquatic Ventures LLC, operate the facility under a lease agreement with Meadowbrook Aquatic Properties.

Seven of Phelps' gold medals have come in relays, and nowhere has Phelps displayed more joy than after epochal victories shared with fellow Americans. 

In Athens, it was dethroning Thorpe and Australia in the 4-by-200 freestyle relay. In Beijing, it was the 4-by-100 freestyle relay. It not only kept Phelps on pace for eight gold medals, it returned the U.S. to the top of the podium, in an event it used to own, for the first time in 12 years. 

"I think Michael knows that race wasn't about him winning eight gold medals, it was about winning one for the U.S.," said Jason Lezak, the only holdover besides Phelps from 2004, one whose anchor leg in Beijing placed him in the Olympic pantheon. "What I figured over the years, I want to win not only for myself. I want to win for my team, my country." 

Like parenthood or a pending marriage, relays have always allowed Phelps, the son of a Baltimore County educator and a retired Maryland State Trooper, to represent something larger than himself. 

"Michael had very few opportunities to connect with people," said Bowman, who, as the U.S. men's head coach, will fill out the three relay lineup cards in Rio. "Very few people have done the things he's done, and relays are an opportunity to do something with others. It goes without saying, that his favorite part of all of this is that he gets to represent his country. That's always been the most important thing to him." 

Torchbearer

As far as elevating the sport of swimming, Phelps has been there and done that. 

In 2000, he qualified for his first Olympics in Indianapolis, in a 4,700-seat natatorium, with sparse media attention. He qualified for his fifth in Omaha June 26-July 3, in a sold-out 14,000-seat arena, with scalpers outside and prime-time coverage on NBC, which sent lead national correspondent Miguel Almaguer to lend perspective and Michele Tafoya to handle interviews on the pool deck. 

There was a time when Phelps' accomplishments were framed for him by the media and his verbal crutch was "actions speak louder than words." In Omaha, after winning the 200 fly, he reminded Tafoya it was his final race on American soil in the event in which he had set his first world record and his last as a 30-year-old. 

Basketball had its Jordan Rules, swimming its Phelps Rules. The Olympics are bankrolled by the American TV rights holder, and the traditional swimming schedule -- prelimins in the morning session, semis and finals at night -- was turned upside down in Beijing, so the East Coast could watch Phelps' finals in primetime on NBC. The network's influence will be felt in Rio (one time zone ahead of Baltimore), where some swimming finals will go off after midnight. 

His tour de force in China made Phelps Sports Illustrated's Sportsperson of the Year at age 23. The youngest male winner, Tiger Woods just before his 21st birthday in 1996, is also the only two-time winner of that award. 

Woods is no longer good enough to play in Rio, where golf returns to the Olympic program for the first time since 1904. Jason Day and Rory McIlroy are among the withdrawals, citing the Zika virus, highlighting several layers of irony in Phelps' quest. In addition to his corporate sponsors and his own line of competitive swimwear, his causes include water safety; the fears of Rio would not be a concern had Chicago succeeded in its bid for the 2016 Olympics. Bowman said Phelps, famous for turning the slightest of slights into motivation, has never dwelt on the fact that he never had the home-pool advantage in the Olympics. 

Atlanta as a spectator in 1996 was a possibility, but then his sister, Whitney, failed to qualify. Muhammad Ali, The Greatest, lit the Olympic cauldron there. Four years later in Sydney, that honor went to Cathy Freeman, an aborigine, the oppressed people of Australia. Phelps watched from the Olympic Village, as he had to rest for his Olympic debut three days out. That established a routine, as Bowman told me, for the fifth straight Olympics, Phelps will pass on marching in the opening ceremony in Rio. 

Los Angeles is a finalist for the 2024 Olympics. Michael lighting the cauldron at the L.A. Coliseum, with his parents and Nicole and Boomer looking on, would add even more distinction to a life worth examining.  

Issue 223: July 2016 
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