In 2008, I got on a plane with my mother, one of my best friends and her mother. I was 12 years old and I bet you couldn’t guess where we were going.
Our plane was heading to the beloved Omaha, Nebraska. With us, we had a good pair of walking shoes, bathing suits, and all of the summer essentials with the addition of two items. We had two large poster boards; one neon pink and the other neon green. One said “Michael” the other said “Phelps”.
We were on our way to see the star start his journey to Beijing with his first stop being the United States Swimming Olympic Trials. This was the first time that I saw Phelps in person and little did I know that it wouldn’t be the last.
Like many young competitive swimmers, I always looked up to Phelps like he was super human. He represented everything every little swimmer with their cap down to their eyebrows and their goggles glued to their face wanted to be for the last 16 years.
Later on in my swimming career, I was lucky enough to compete in several meets where he was also competing, and at that moment is when I began to see him more as a person rather than a superhero.
There have been swimming greats by the names of Mark Spitz, Dara Torres, and Ryan Lochte, but no one has ever made quite the impression that Michael Phelps has. However, with great fame comes great responsibility.
It is a fact that Michael Phelps put the sport of competitive swimming on the map. There is no wonder that it airs during primetime of the Olympic coverage. It is no coincidence that Olympic swimming tickets are the first to go. People love to watch other people push their bodies’ to limits that no one ever thought possible. As a fellow swimmer, I couldn’t thank Michael Phelps enough for what he has done for the sport of swimming. There is still a ton about the sport that a normal bystander would never understand nor care to understand. But Phelps, finally got the general population to awe at our pure athleticism, tenacity, and determination.
Like I said earlier, at the time of the Beijing Games all eyes were on him. It was a fame he never asked for and in those games he certainly stepped up to the block and gave the world a spectacle. Which made it ever more disappointing when our poster-child made some poor decisions.
I know how hard swimming is physically and mentally. The grueling hours, the early mornings, and the screaming coaches are all part of the bargain, but Phelps never agreed to having the spotlight solely on him, and I think people make mistakes. Phelps has made a few of them. He has admitted to them and attempted to atone for them.
He is a different man now then he was four years ago or even when I saw him in Omaha in 2008. He gave the whole swimming world someone to look up to. It is likely that many of us will never see another Phelps in our lifetime. They only come around every once in a blue moon. He is something to marvel at.
Now, more than ever, he embodies the meaning of hard work and we can’t thank him enough for finally giving the swimming world some of the credit it rightfully deserves.
As he steps up on the blocks for the very last time in Rio, don’t forget to remember all the little swimmers he’ll continue to influence to start blowing bubbles or maybe even swimming the butterfly. Maybe even some day we’ll see his son, Boomer, in the pool. Like father, like son.