RIO de JANEIRO – A couple of days after Michael Phelps emphatically retired in London, I was talking with Mel Stewart, the 1992 Olympic gold medalist in the 200m butterfly and the founder of the website SwimSwam. He said something then that only now makes sense.
At that moment, Phelps’ career did not only seem over… it seemed complete. The writer John Updike, in his famous story about baseball legend Ted Williams, broke up Williams’ career (and, perhaps, all great athletes’ careers) into three stages. He wrote: “(These) may be termed, Youth, Maturity and Age; or Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis; or Jason, Achilles and Nestor.”
Youth, Maturity and Age.
In Greek mythology, Jason was the driven and ambitious young hero who sets out to regain his father’s throne. Achilles was the awesomely beautiful and almost invulnerable heir. And Nestor was the aged warrior of the Iliad who bragged a lot and offered advice because he was too old to fight.
This so perfectly fits Phelps’ odyssey.
Youth (Jason): Yes, Phelps was a phenom, a prodigy. At 15, Phelps became the youngest man in more than a half century to make the U.S. Olympic swim team. A few months later, he became the youngest man ever to set a world record. He had a clear and unstoppable mission to become the greatest swimmer ever.
Maturity (Achilles): Yes, at 19, in Athens, Phelps won eight medals, six of them gold. He set four Olympic records (including one world record) in one of the most stirring performances in Olympic history. And still, it wasn’t good enough. He reached for even higher goals. In Beijing, at 23, he became the first swimmer to win eight gold medals, and he lifted his sport to another place.
“Nobody,” says his rival and friend Ryan Lochte, “could do what Michael did.”
Age (Nestor): After Beijing, Phelps had trouble finding the motivation to go on. But he knew somehow that he should go on. He trained sporadically, feuded with his coach Bob Bowman, talked openly about how badly he wanted to retire.
Then in London, on sheer will and muscle memory, he won six more medals, four of them gold. In all, he had won 22 Olympic medals, 18 of them gold – numbers beyond imagination. But London also made clear that he was no longer invincible. He was beaten in two grueling events that he had called his own (the 400m individual medley and 200m butterfly), and it seemed an unmistakable sign that the end had arrived. More, he was burned out – he didn’t want this swimming life anymore. He said good bye.
“I’ve been able to do everything that I wanted,” Phelps said. “If you can say that about your career, there’s no need to move forward. Time for other things.”
That did seem the end. He did seem to have done everything he wanted.
A couple of days later, as mentioned, I was talking with Mel Stewart, and he said something about Phelps that I have never quite forgotten. Stewart was talking about his own gold medal ceremony, and how he desperately wanted to cry. Of course he did. This was the pinnacle. This was what his lifelong climb had been all about. This was why he had altered his life, why he had endured all that pain, why he had stared at the line on the bottom of the pool for countless hours, why his family and friends and coaches had fans had supported him and pushed him and cheered for him. Of course he wanted to cry.
“But you couldn’t cry,” Mel said. “You were just a kid. If you cried, you were weak. Of course, you weren’t weak, but you didn’t know that then. You were young and immature; you didn’t know anything. … I wish I could go back to my gold medal stand and cry.”
“Did you notice?” he asked. “Michael didn’t cry on the medal stand.”
* * *
For Michael Phelps, these are the feeling Olympics. Everybody marvels at how engaged he is at these Games. He walks through the Athletes’ Village and sees tennis superstar Novak Djokovic – hey, how about a photo Novak? He sees a handful of reporters, people he would have normally avoided like the flu – hey guys, how is it going? He stops to pose for photos with other athletes. He happily talks about the many outfits his son Boomer will wear during the Games.
He happily – and gratefully – accepts the honor of carrying the flag and leading the United States team into the stadium for the Rio Opening Ceremony.
This will be his first Opening Ceremony – he skipped the last four because he felt the need to rest before the competition began. He considered skipping this one, too. He asked his coach Bob Bowman to advise him using a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being “Are you crazy? No way you go,” and 10 being “absolutely, you have to go; it’s a chance of a lifetime.”
“I told myself if it was 8 or above, I was definitely going,” Phelps said.
Bowman (being Bowman) calculated the prudence of going at 7.8. Phelps decided that was close enough.
Phelps is cheerful and open in a way he has never been at the Olympics. And his eyes are wide open. That’s what makes this final (?) stage of his career so fascinating. See, Phelps has done everything at the Olympics, everything, except perhaps the most personal thing of all.
He has never fully enjoyed it.
“Before,” Phelps admits, “I would always have my headphones on and would never talk to anybody. That’s kind of literally how it always was.”
It was obvious. He held everything off at a distance. He ducked his head as he wandered the Olympic Village so as not to make eye contact. He suffered through press conferences, often speaking with an edge that preemptively cut off any possible connection.
And when asked if he was enjoying it all – the medals, the fame, the records, the love – he mouthed clichés that he obviously did not believe. When London ended, he hit the eject button as fast and hard as possible, and he promised to never look back.
* * *
Those two years after London have now been well-documented. Phelps got lost. It happens often for great athletes, especially those in sports that require so much self-discipline. He gained weight. He gambled and partied. He was arrested for driving under the influence.
One of the most revealing and fascinating looks at his life came through his appearance on Golf Channel’s “The Haney Project,” where golf instructor Hank Haney worked to improve Phelps’ game. The show is, of course, supposed to be fun, and it’s obviously on camera and everyone is aware of that. But as the show went on, something happened: Phelps and Haney began to clash. Haney wanted Phelps to take it more seriously. Phelps, who had taken athletics so seriously all his life, just wanted to live life and be free. Why should he hit 200 nine-irons anyway?
And that was just a golf show.
“There’s an escaped convict period of time,” Mel Stewart had told me of his own retirement, “when you just want to get away and do all the things you couldn’t do when you were swimming. All of them.”
After a dark period, Phelps looked to put his life back together – and swimming had to be part of that. “You don’t realize it when you’re swimming, but after a while you become part fish,” Stewart says. “You feel right in the water.” Phelps was 25 pounds overweight when he found himself in a swimming pool in Cabo. All these old feelings rushed back. He called Bowman.
“Hey,” he said, “I think I want to do one more Olympics.”
“Not a chance,” Bowman barked back.
No, Bowman wanted no part of it – he would say the feuds before London had taken years off his life. But, over time, Phelps convinced him that this was going to be different. This time he wasn’t training for history. He wasn’t training for the medals. He wasn’t even training for all the fans. This time Phelps wanted to swim for himself. He wanted to prove something to himself. And, most of all, he wanted to enjoy the journey.
And so it has gone – Phelps insists he has never worked harder for an Olympics, and he has never been in better shape both mentally and physically. He and Bowman are now like a longtime comedy act where they intimately know each other’s moves and quirks – they finish each other’ sentences. Phelps has reconnected with his longtime girlfriend Nicole Johnson, and they have a son Boomer – it goes without saying that fatherhood changes a person.
Mostly, everything just makes sense now. These won’t be Phelps’ best Olympics. But these have every chance of being Phelps’ favorite Olympics.
So how will he do? Well, unlike year’s past, that one is a bit of a mystery. That adds a bit of drama to all this as well. Phelps swims in three individual events – the 200m individual medley and the 100m and 200m butterfly. He has the world record in both butterfly events and is three-time defending Olympic champion in the IM so you would think that sets him up.
But, he does not have the fastest 2016 time in any of the events. In the medley, Japan’s Kosuke Hagino has a faster time. In the 100m and 200m butterfly, Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh has the faster time (Phelps’ best time in the 200m this year is actually sixth in the world). The Phelps people will counter that the plan, all along, was to hold back the rest of the year and prime Phelps to swim his fastest time at the Olympics – a plan he and Bowman seem confident in.
So there’s your mystery. Will Phelps rise up one more time? Will he find himself out-touched at the wall by a younger swimmer? It should be noted that Phelps is 31 and attempting to becoming the oldest man to ever win an individual swimming gold medal. No one expects it to be easy.
But the best part is that none of this seems to be weighing on Phelps. Yes, of course, there is pressure, and he is confident, like always. But much more than that he seems happy. He seems determined to enjoy these Olympics, enjoy them like he did not enjoy the other four. He can do that now.
“I think I’ve really been able to enjoy life,” Phelps says. It sounds so simple. It has not been simple at all.