Normally, I write about running, but without swimming, I wouldn’t be a runner, so tonight, I need to say thank you to Michael Phelps:
I was a high school swimmer before we knew your name. I didn’t know how much I needed swimming until I found it–or it found me–or the universe (or my parents) threw me in the deep end. Swimming saved me. It brought me the confidence I lost when I didn’t make the high school basketball team. It gave me a purpose, friends, a coach would become a mentor–stya a mentor, and then become a friend.
The first time I jumped into the pool as a high school sophomore, I just felt like a kid that couldn’t cut it at basketball–her one true love. When I climbed out after my last meet as a senior, I had a school record, more confidence than I was probably entitled to, and I felt fearless.
It was 1999 and we still didn’t know your name.
In fact, while I could list my hero Olympic swimmers by then: Janet Evans, Dara Torres, Gary Hall, Jr., none of my friends or family could. I yelled at a TV rooting for Amy VanDyken, and named a fish Alexander Popov. But swimming only came into most homes once every four years. The Wheaties boxes would be collectors’ items for a few weeks, and by Labor Day, the country’s attention for swimming had faded.
“It doesn’t have a ball.” “Swimming doesn’t make any money.”
I knew I was an athlete. But in the three years between summer Olympics, no one else did.
Until we met you.
Your country fell in love with your talent, and stayed in love with you because you’re the one guy in this country we all root for. Our politics, our religion, our bank accounts fade into the background when we gather around a TV and watch you break records, hearts of other competitors, and hold that gold medal up on the podium.
No one questioned for a minute if Michael Phelps was an athlete.
Swimming became cool.
I became an athlete.
I hope that in the years ahead, you learn what those of us that retired a long time ago already know. All it takes to be a swimmer again when the meets are over is to jump into the deep end. Even after the attention is gone, the fans have gone home, and your career has ended, the smell of chlorine will always take you back to your best meets, your best race, your best years. One day you’ll be swimming a couple laps, and get lazy coming off the wall. Your hands won’t be streamlined enough, but you don’t care, it’s just for fun. And you’ll hear your coach in your head. And you’ll snap those hands back together–because at your core, you’re still just a kid trying to win a race.
I’ve often wondered where I would be now if my parents hadn’t encouraged me to try out for the high school swim team when I was 15. I think I would have continued to struggle with a lack of confidence. I would have let that childhood grief of not making the basketball team define me. I wouldn’t have built leadership skills from being a senior captain. I wouldn’t have known the amazing feeling of breaking a school record in the last meet with a relay team I’ll never forget. I wouldn’t have met the coach that pushed me because he knew I was better than I knew.
When I needed swimming the most, the days that my anxiety was borderline crippling in law school, swimming wouldn’t have been there for me. When I needed another life change as an adult, I probably wouldn’t have turned to running. No 5K’s with my dad and my friends. No half-marathons “just to see if I could.” No knowing that I absolutely can.
In two weeks, I’ll finish my second triathlon. And the best part will still be jumping in the pool.
And when I’m done, and smell like chlorine and sweat and have wet hair, not one person will question whether swimming is a sport.
We won’t forget you, just like we haven’t forgotten you in between Summer Olympics.
And because of you, we will remember Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel, Ryan Held, and Ryan Murphy, and all of our knew heros we met this summer. We’ll see them on commercials, we’ll see them at nationally televised Nationals and Worlds.
In an hour, your country and fans will try to say good bye to the one guy this country has always been able to root for. Your mistakes made you just more like us. Your return this year proved what we’ve always known–you’re the greatest.
You’re all of us.