Wish I could say I came up with the title myself, but I have to credit this web site for it.
I love the Olympics, both winter and summer. It’s a chance to see interesting sports that aren’t on TV on a regular basis. I especially love watching swimming because I swam competitively growing up. And I’m glad that swimming, a sport whose world championships are usually buried on Fox Sports or ESPN2, has been receiving a lot of attention lately. All because my Olympic boyfriend has actually done it.
I love Michael Phelps, and first of all, let’s get the shallow part out of the way. Yes, I find him attractive. He has a perfect body, a gorgeous smile, and a kind of adorably imperfect face. My last two years of college, he was all over my dorm room walls.
But aside from that, I’ve loved him since Athens because I’m so impressed with him. What he did in Athens was hard enough—six golds, two bronzes—and I remember thinking that he handled himself very well in interviews. Whenever someone talked to him about his swims, he’d turn it around and say something like, “Yes, our whole team did well.” And then, in a move that got a lot of publicity at the time, he let Ian Crocker take his spot in the medley relay, ensuring that both of them would get a gold medal.
Then there was this Olympics, with the eight gold medal swims that kept getting more and more amazing. The unbelievable 4 x 100 relay (thank you, Jason Lezak). The 200 fly where he broke a world record with water in his goggles (seriously, I still can’t get my mind around that). The 100 fly where he was in seventh place at the fifty, then came back and out-touched the Serbian dude by one freaking hundredth of a second. Out of his eight wins, seven of them were world records.
I don’t understand how he did it. Not physically, I mean. I have no doubts that he’s capable of doing all that. He’s a freak of nature. The media have analyzed his anatomy to death—his wingspan (6’7”) is three inches longer than his height, he’s double-jointed, he has size 14 feet, he has to eat 12,000 calories a day, and I’ve even heard that his body produces less lactic acid than normal people’s.
What I don’t get is how he did it mentally. NBC was depending on him to continue winning gold medals to help their ratings. One of his sponsors, I forget which one, promised him a million-dollar bonus if he got eight golds. The media acted like anything less than eight gold medals was abject failure. And I’d say at least half of the American Olympic coverage focused on him.
Like I said, I used to swim, and granted, I’m a nervous person, but I used to make myself sick before meets, going over all my strategies in my head and worrying about making my target times, and the only person putting pressure on me was me. When it’s international media putting pressure on you, how in the world do you block that out? How do you keep that focus? Especially since you not only have to swim in prelims, semifinals, and finals, but also be drug tested constantly and have to answer Andrea Kremer’s annoying, repetitive questions after every race? Forget the superhuman athletic feats and physical features. That’s superhuman grace under pressure.
And even that’s not as amazing as his other accomplishment—bringing this much media attention to a sport that gets less time on ESPN than bowling. On Saturday, when he won his last gold medal for the medley relay, I was in a bar celebrating Julie’s birthday, and when it was time for that relay, everyone gathered around the TVs to watch. And when they won, everybody cheered and started yelling, “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
This, mind you, was in Boston. Home of the Red Sox, Celtics, Patriots, Bruins, and some of the most enthusiastic fans of mainstream sports in the world. And here everybody was, all united in cheering for athletes they might never have heard of until that week.
Olympic swimming is over until 2012. But if my Olympic boyfriend’s accomplishments succeed in keeping swimming in people’s consciousness until London, that might be his most incredible feat yet.