You know you’re part of something greater than yourself when the people around you scream for you to never retire. You know you’re loved when those who raised you storm away in anger, only to come back to make sure you’re okay. You know you’ve earned the respect of your teammates and competitors alike, when they choose you to carry their banner.
This is the story of Michael Phelps – a man who has evolved from a furious competitor in Beijing 2008, to a reluctant Olympian in London 2012 and finally, a legend with a clear conscience in Rio 2016. Those calling him for to return in 2018 (Tokyo) are his teammates, huddled together after winning Gold at the 4×100 meter medley relay final. It’s not surprising they’d want him back because he is just that clutch. In the third leg, with the US trailing Great Britain by 0.61 second, his teammates trusted…needed Phelps to regain command. And with that, Phelps’ strong butterfly stroke gave Nathan Adrian a 0.41 second lead that USA would not relinquish.
Bob Bowman has coached Phelps since he was 11 years old. For any of you out there whom have ever loved another, which I’m going to bet is a lot of you, you all know that love comes at the expense of anger. You can’t truly allow someone to enter your heart before you first let them under your skin. And for Bowman, watching Phelps grow up into a fierce competitor and stubborn young man – it must have been difficult trying to keep Phelps out of trouble. A coach and father figure, Bowman had to balance training a winner and raising a good man in the face of so much temptation. As expected, there were clashes and Phelps made mistakes, like his DUI arrest in September 2014.
Bowman was there through it all. He may have been disappointed, but he understood the burden weighing on Phelps. Imagine that from a young age, everyone saw you as a great physically talented athlete and chose to dedicate much of their lives to helping you hone your craft. Raw talent meets determined training and the result is pure victory. Time and time again, you prove you’re more than hype. With every win, your fanbase grows, the expectations of your coaches increases and the pool of haters begins to overflow. It’s a lot to take in, no doubt. Phelps made mistakes not because he’s a bad person, but because he is actually a human being. Coming to terms with that isn’t easy when your young, let alone an accomplished Olympian. He shut out his coach, the fans, his detractors and wanted nothing to do with the London Olympics. Phelps had four years after London to realize what drives him isn’t the expectation of countless people, but rather the love of swimming and coming to terms with his human imperfection. What a relief it must have been to free himself from all that stress, and it made him a better champion once he did. For what it’s worth, which is a lot, Bowman stayed with him and allowed him to grow, and their relationship as partners and friends is better for it.
Phelps has proven to be the difference between Gold and Silver for his team countless times, but winning isn’t the reason why they believe in him. Hundreds of years ago, kings would rally their bannermen to protect the realm. There was honor in carrying your sigil into battle, representing your country. A smart king wouldn’t just surround himself with the strongest knights that guaranteed victory. No, he would summon his most loyal noblemen – those he could respect and who respected him. In similar fashion, Phelps’ teammates chose him to be the US standard-bearer at the Rio 2016 Opening Ceremony. The decision to have him bring in the US flag is a testament to the respect he’s earned and redeemed.
Phelps came to understand that being driven to win is like keeping your foot on the accelerator – eventually, if you don’t let up, you’ll burn out. Phelps has finally learned to appreciate the road, savoring every triumph and setback along the way. He inspires his team not by placing them on his shoulders, but by being himself. Before his final race at the 4×100 meter medley, Phelps was quoted as saying, “I don’t have anything to say, but let’s go out there and kill it.” He could have pretended he was some inspirational orator and tried to come up with a long speech, but that’s just not him. He spoke from the heart and sometimes that gets the best response. Ryan Murphy, who was revved up by these words, lead the US off with his world-record time in the 100 backstroke. I’d say that was pretty inspiring.
Michael Jordon, Brett Favre, Martin Brodeur, Mike Piazza – all greats in their respective sports and days, and all have had to deal with the passing of time. It’s never easy seeing your sports heroes move into their golden years, and it’s even harder for the athlete to come to terms with retirement. The real greats don’t live in the past but seek to do new and better things onthe public stage. The sports legends live on because they know that the rush of winning is a temporary high as opposed to living honest. For Phelps, winning his 28th career Olympic medal and his 23rd gold was “the cherry on top” of a great career. For now, there’s a sense of closure for Michael Phelps. As Bob Bowman puts it, “There is a baby and a house and a wife. He can see the next chapter of his life. And he can’t wait. I don’t worry about him anymore. He’s on a great path, and I think that’s the biggest difference.”