Happy Birthday, Michael Phelps!

636028299284250583-USATSI-9362485It’s the Olympic trials for swimming this week. For those of you who haven’t suffered through my endless Michael Phelps trivia over the past 16 years, here’s your chance. I imagine that this is how everyone else feels during football or baseball season. I don’t know how you people deal with this once a year. Once every four years is more than enough for me, thanks.

I’d like to say that I’ve always loved watching the Olympics, but I’m pretty sure “always” means “since 2004,” which is the first time I watched Michael Phelps swim. In those Olympics, he won 6 gold medals and 2 bronze and Kelly and I were fascinated. And by fascinated, I mean obsessed. We may have made a scrapbook. Believe me, I wish I knew where it was now.

In 2008 Michael Phelps became the first person to win 8 gold medals in a single Olympics. Person, of course, should read “swimmer” because it’s pretty close to impossible to do that in any other sport, but nevertheless. Time zones meant that Kelly and I could watch most of the races live, late at night, jumping around our TV room as he racked up gold after gold after gold.

And then in London, Michael Phelps became the most medaled Olympian athlete. Ever.

By that time it’d become clear that while Michael Phelps was great at swimming, he was not that great at being a person. I imagine that when you’ve been nothing but a swimmer for your formative years, it can be hard to know who you are without that. This obviously does not excuse bad behavior. DUIs kill people, and Michael Phelps, and the other people on the road that night, are all extremely lucky that his poor judgment did not result in grievous injury or death. You don’t get points for doing the right thing, either, but I think it is notable that went to rehab and accepted his suspension from swimming with some degree of grace. And since then, he’s worked his ass off to make this comeback.

michael-phelps-sports-illustrated-720x500A comeback I’ll admit, I was not looking forward to. I get very invested, very quickly. It takes me all of four seconds to get invested in a sporting event (except basketball. I cannot care about basketball) and that’s part of why I avoid them. Imagine what the past 16 years have been like. I was not looking forward to watching Phelps be disappointed, whether by his own mistakes, or by the unavoidable consequences of age.

But so far I have been happily surprised. Not just by Phelps’ performance, but also by how easy and happy he seems in comparison to the single-minded focus and frustrated distance we’ve seen in the past. He’s been up in the booth and doing interviews and making Facebook live videos. His fiancé and his baby have been sitting in the stand with his mom and it’s really nice to see. Because it’s been incredible watching his swimming career, but I’m finding it even more fun to watch him become a person.

I have a bit of a competence kink. I like watching people who are the best at what they do. I don’t really know why this is. It’s not like it serves as inspiration to me to overcome life’s great difficulties, of which I have none, though there is something to knowing what you can make yourself do if you just sit down and do it. I pretty much never know what I’m doing – it’s nice to watch people who do.

And every four years I get to watch Michael Phelps break a record. This year, he already has one (first male swimmer to make five Olympic teams) so the pressure’s off. Would I like him to win one more gold, thereby having more gold medals than anyone else in the world has medals, period? Yes. But if he doesn’t, he will still have his fiancé and his kid and his foundation and his Facebook live videos. Unimportantly, that’s good enough for me.

I hope it’s good enough for him too.

photo credits: Erich Schlegel USA Today, Sports Illustrated 

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