At 15 years old, Michael Phelps became the youngest male swimmer in 68 years to make a U.S. Olympic swim team. At his second Olympic Games in Athens, Greece in 2004, Phelps won six gold medals. He also took home two more bronze medals.
His encore performance in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 saw him capture eight gold medals, the most ever by one person in a single Olympics. His record 14 total gold medals is the most by a single individual ever. He has already picked up a silver medal for the U.S. Men’s 4x100 freestyle makes him just two medals short of the most medals all-time for a single Olympic athlete.
Without question Phelps is the most decorated U.S. athlete of all time, and arguably the most decorated athlete in the world ever, but his most recent races in the pool have drawn criticism and scrutiny.
How does a swimmer who won a record eight gold medals just four short years ago, suddenly become a villain and target of critics who say he has “lost his competitive edge”, such as color commentator for NBC, Rowdy Gaines, openly criticizing Phelps during the heat that he went on to win in the semifinals for the 200-meter butterfly?
Tyler Clary, teammate and fellow competitor in the 200-meter butterfly, has been one of Phelps’ most outspoken critics when he told the Riverside Press-Enterprise earlier this month what it was like training with Phelps:
“Basically, he was a swimmer that didn’t want to be there,” Clary told reporters. “They can talk about all of these goals and plans and preparation they have. I saw it. I know. It’s different. And I saw somebody that has basically been asking to get beat for the longest time.”
Clary went on to say,
“I’ve always called myself more of a blue-collar worker, as far as swimming goes. I work my (butt) off all the time. That’s not to say that everybody else doesn’t, but the fact that I know I work harder than (Phelps) does makes me appreciate every little goal and every little gain that I make. And the day that it happens, when I finally beat him, is going to be a huge deal in my mind, because it would be complete satisfaction. And the only thing that would be better than that is breaking the world record.”
Phelps’ defeat on Saturday night by Ryan Lochte in the 400-meter individual medley, drew rampant speculation of the regression that Phelps had made over the past few years, leaving many to believe that the Phelps of 2004 and 2008 was long gone.
The truth is that sports and sports fans are fickle. One day you are the golden child, the superstar that can do no wrong, and the next day you are yesterday’s news.
For Phelps there is a cost to winning all of those gold medals.
Olympic athletes train all of their lives to achieve a gold medal. They train to be exalted on a podium, looking down on their beaten foes to hear their own national anthem ring through a packed stadium. They gain fame and glory for their respective countries and millions of dollars in endorsements of willing suitors.
But what about the week after winning gold?
What happens when an athlete has achieved what they set out to do after training their whole lives? Their sole focus and drive for their entire existence has been set on attaining a gold medal, which is actually made up mostly of silver, and contains at least 5.5 grams of gold from the plating process.
The medal likely goes into a trophy case for years until economic hardship befalls the recipient and they might sell it at auction for thousands of dollars to pay bills.
For Phelps what is the motivation? To achieve the most medals by any one athlete of all time? He already has the most golds of any Olympian. To gain glory and fame for the U.S.? He is already the most recognizable U.S. Olympic athlete and has been so since his six medals in Athens.
So what motivation remains for Phelps?
I would say that Phelps has nothing left to prove. He has shown that he is the greatest Olympic swimmer to ever have lived. If he leaves London without any more medals, his career has not been tarnished. He will still be remembered as the greatest swimmer of all time until the next best athlete comes along.
He will be immortalized like Mark Spitz who won seven gold medals in the 1972 Munich Olympics. Phelps’ historic achievements were predicated by Matt Biondi achievements in the 1984, 1988 and 1992 Olympics, when he won a total of 11 Olympic medals, five gold medals in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, in which four of those golds he set World Records.
The truth about all sports is that they never offer true satisfaction and fulfillment. After winning a gold medal, the race is repeated four years later. Once a Super Bowl wraps up in early February, the teams go back to work just a couple months later planning for the next season. You may set a world record time in one race that may be broken the next heat. The reality of Sport is that it is never-ending and offers only momentary satisfaction.
Olympians such as Phelps, despite the pageantry surrounding the medals podium is only as good as his last race. Being on the other side of his swimming career, he has already achieved the pinnacle of the sport. He dominated the field at the peak of his career.
For the decorated Olympian, what’s left? He may go on to win several more medals during the 2012 London Olympics, however, for him and his droves of fans in the U.S., it is time to move on.