The Collegian
Tuesday, November 28, 2023

An encounter with Phelps

I was in middle school when I first heard his name.

I was never much of a swimmer -- I actually stopped going to summer camp because I was the only one of my friends who couldn't pass swimming lessons. At the pool I went to, I preferred to do handstands in the shallow end and pretend I had the skill to one day fulfill my dream of becoming an Olympic gymnast.

There actually was an Olympian in that pool, it just wasn't me. His name? Michael Phelps.

You could find him most days in the lanes I avoided and it wasn't long before he began to attract attention in Baltimore. One day, I came to the pool and saw his picture on a bulletin board, near a banner that congratulated him for some accomplishment I can't even remember anymore. I didn't think much of it at the time, but gradually I came to realize he was more than just a local talent.

In 2000, at age 15, Michael went to Sydney for the summer Olympics, but didn't win a medal. Phelps was 19 and much more experienced in the 2004 Athens games, winning six gold medals and two bronzes, causing many to speculate about whether he had the talent to surpass Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in one Olympics.

I started to pay more attention, and this summer it seemed that all anyone in Baltimore had to say about the Olympics had to do with Michael Phelps' pursuit of eight gold medals.

I knew someone in high school whose last name was Phelps, and he used to hate being asked whether he was related to Michael. But I've heard he now talks freely about his "cousin" Michael and how well he's done in this year's Olympics.

I had jury duty a few weeks ago, and overheard someone behind me mention that he had gone to high school with Michael Phelps. A man in front of me was reading a magazine with Michael Phelps on the cover.

When the woman working at the courthouse turned on the television, all sets were turned to NBC. Phelps was swimming in a heat, not for a medal, but I still stopped everything I was doing to watch.

There are many instances in sports when the coverage of one athlete or one game becomes too much. In this year's Super Bowl, I rooted for the Giants mostly because I was tired of reading about the Patriots' "pursuit of perfection."

And after all the times I saw Brett Favre's name during the off-season, I doubt I'm going to care much about how well he plays for the Jets this season. But for some reason, the endless talk about Michael Phelps doesn't bother me.

Maybe because there are four years between Olympics, I don't feel so overwhelmed. And when I was at home in Baltimore, I tried to read the articles whose headlines were closer to "the side of Phelps you don't know" than "another race, another world record."

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As I read one article in The Baltimore Sun, I found a piece of information that gives you your very own connection to the man with the most gold medals in Olympic history: his oldest sister, Hilary, is a 2000 graduate of the University of Richmond who swam here for four years.

It's a statement of just how good Michael Phelps is that the athletic accomplishments of his two sisters, the other one who almost made the 1996 Olympic swimming team, are hardly ever mentioned.

And on the subject of Phelps' talent, I myself was astounded by what he did in Beijing. I watched more swimming then I ever had, just to see whether Phelps could win eight medals in eight days.

It sort of seemed inevitable that he would go eight for eight, but the way he did it is what impressed me. Phelps set world records in seven of his eight swims and won some incredibly close races--the 4x100 freestyle relay by .08 seconds and the 100m butterfly by .01 seconds.

After such close finishes, Phelps' eighth race, which he and his teammates won by .30 seconds, seemed like a blowout. He now has 16 medals, 14 of them gold, and he has the chance to add to that count in the 2012 London Olympics--after all, he'd only be 27.

But Phelps may prefer to focus on others' Olympic success instead of his own--there are already rumors in Baltimore that he wants to buy our pool and turn it and some of its surrounding buildings into an Olympic training center. He's also agreed to write a memoir called "Built to Succeed," another way to pass his knowledge down to others.

No matter what Phelps decides to do in 2012, he will have an important place in Olympic history. There were 36 years between Spitz's seven gold medals and Phelps' eight, but Phelps' record may not survive as long.

As this games showed, world records can easily be broken as swimmers and swimsuit designers find more and more ways to reduce their times. One day, there will be a new swimmer ready to challenge Michael Phelps as he took on Spitz.

But for right now, I'm just happy that I got to witness what Phelps did in this Olympics. His accomplishments have helped swimming, the Olympics and the United States--I couldn't ask for much more than that.

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