We all know of Michael Phelps' great accomplishments throughout these Olympic Games—the eight gold medals, the seven world records, the close finishes, and the dominant races. I am not here to elaborate on those, but to try to prove a point.
The point is not that Michael Phelps is the best athlete, swimmer, or Olympian ever. But that all the hoopla (and we know there was a lot) behind his quest has made for the best sports story in a long, long time.
Going into Athens, Phelps was already targeting Mark Spitz's mark of seven gold medals in a single Olympics. He wound up "short" with "only" six gold medals and two bronze medals.
There are two simple reasons why I used quotation marks to modify the words above. First, what he accomplished in Athens was enough to guarantee him a place in history. Second, Phelps himself was not satisfied with his performance, winning "only" six of a possible eight gold medals.
How do I know that? How do I know that Phelps was disappointed with his performance?
Because as we went back to our normal lives after the 2004 Olympics, Phelps started training toward his goal, and did so for four years. As we followed the NFL, NBA, MLB, College Football, and so on, Phelps was waking up early every morning and hitting the pool and weight room. He was making himself the best swimmer he could be.
It paid off.
The most important (and in many ways disappointing) part of this story is that while Phelps was training towards this unimaginable goal we were treated to stories of Michael Vick, Barry Bonds, Pacman, and every other misbehaving athlete that time after time let everyone down and had people losing faith in sports, little by little.
The stories that I just mentioned should have been reported—I am not saying they shouldn't have been. All those stories led to improvements in the sports (cracking down on steroids, NFL's conduct policy), but Michael Phelps is why we follow sports.
It's not the gold medals, not the world records, but the story behind the scenes, the story that was going on while we focused on steroids, dogfights, and all those headlines.
We need more stories like Phelps’. He's a guy who is as laid-back and respectful outside of the pool as he is intense and focused in it.
And we need these stories more often, not only once every four years.
Championships are nice, but I love sports because of these great stories. Stories like this one, about a Baltimore kid who was bullied and poked fun of at in school and is now the greatest Olympic swimmer ever.
So, thank you, Michael Phelps, for such a great ride and for a story that shows the true reason why sports are so great to follow.