Legend and a leader

Legend and a leader

Swimming: At the Rio Olympic Games, Michael Phelps is expected to play the role of a mentor to his team-mates

Legend and a leader
Of all Michael Phelps’ feats, this one may be the most remarkable: He has been to four Olympics without once having to perform a skit in front of the other American swimmers.

These acts, generally parodies executed by first-timers, are a staple of pre-Games training camps. Their purpose extends beyond staving off boredom; they build camaraderie by breaking down the individual ego.

Before heading off to his fifth Olympics, Phelps playfully pleaded not to have this oversight revealed.

“I don’t want to have to do one now,” he said, laughing.

Phelps should not have to worry. With 30 first-timers on the US Olympic squad of 45 bound for Rio de Janeiro, the training camp entertainment calendar is going to be pretty crowded.

Besides, it is not as if Phelps has to introduce himself to his team-mates or show that he is game to expose himself to shame and ridicule.

Olivia Smoliga, who won the 100-metre backstroke at the US trials to become one of the Olympic rookies, hung a poster in her bedroom in 2008 of Phelps posing with his eight gold medals from the Beijing Games.

Nobody in the history of swimming has spent more time in the spotlight’s glare than Phelps, who infused the sport with sponsorship money and global attention, sometimes at his own expense.

His fishbowl existence never felt more awkward than in 2014, when Phelps, roughly a year into his swimming comeback, entered a treatment centre after his second drunken driving arrest. On the first day, he said, he was watching television with other patients — still strangers to him — when his name scrolled across the bottom of the screen with the news that he had entered rehab.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s me,'” Phelps said.

Phelps, 31, has spent more than half his life on the world’s stage, accumulating a wealth of wisdom that he is eager to lavish on the other US swimmers.

He has gone to the Olympics feeling that he has nothing to lose, a sentiment voiced by several of his Rio-bound rookie teammates. He has now entered an Olympics feeling, as his compatriot Missy Franklin did at these trials, that there is everything to lose.

It was sobering to hear Franklin, the soon-to-be two-time Olympian who is as well-balanced a world-class athlete as you’ll find, talk about the stress of the heightened expectations that come with Olympic success and “wanting to make people proud of me.”

Phelps knows exactly how that feels. Until he moved to the Phoenix area last year, he lived in his hometown, Baltimore, as a living monument, shouldering the city’s collective hopes and dreams. Franklin, a four-time Olympic gold medallist four years ago, failed to qualify in two individual events in which she graced the final eight in London, including one of her championship races, the 100 backstroke.

“Sounds silly, but even after my 100 back, we walked out and I was like, ‘Oh, thank God, people still want my autograph,'” she said. “I had this idea that if I didn’t live up to these expectations that so much was going to change.”

Phelps can help team-mates like Franklin and Katie Ledecky navigate around the booby traps that litter one’s path after blazing new trails. He can also help rookies like Chase Kalisz and Smoliga find their way.

In 2000, a 15-year-old Phelps was Kalisz, a wide-eyed kid embarking on a one-event Olympics adventure. In 2004, he was Ledecky, building on his first Olympics by branching out into different events. “In 2000, Michael was this little novelty, and everyone thought he was so cute,” said Bob Bowman, the head of the men’s Olympic team and Phelps’ long-time coach.

By 2004, Phelps’ success in multiple events had created a physical and emotional distance. Other American swimmers, Bowman said, felt resentful.

“They were wondering, ‘What spot of mine is he going to take at the next Olympics?'” he said, adding: “Michael was kind of upset. I said, ‘Look, the higher you go, the more isolated you become.'”

The 2004 and 2008 Olympics were Phelps’ most successful; he won a combined 14 golds and two bronzes. But they were also his most solitary.

“He was so focused on those trips,” Bowman said. “He would go to practice, eat, go to his room. In general, he pretty much kept to himself. He was trying to get ready to do something no one had ever done.”

No one at this year’s trials qualified in five individual events as Phelps did in 2004 and 2008. Maya DiRado came as close as anyone not named Ledecky or Phelps, making the team in the 200 backstroke and the 200 and 400 individual medleys. The Rio Games will be DiRado’s first Olympics, and also her last; she has vowed to retire and join the workforce this fall.

Since her graduation from Stanford in 2014, DiRado has made enough as a professional swimmer to make ends meet while living in Northern California’s Bay Area, not exactly a bastion of affordability.

During the US trials, DiRado followed Phelps in the interview room and said, “The fact that I was able to compete as a professional swimmer for the past two years and make a really comfortable living without having even been to an Olympics is a testament to what Michael has done with the sport of swimming.”

The US team has lots of work left to match its 2012 Olympic medal haul of 16 golds, nine silvers and six bronzes. In 10 of the 26 individual events, the winning time was slower than at the 2012 trials. 

Phelps’ 200 butterfly time at these trials did not place him in the top five in the world. Neither did the winning times in the women’s 200 breaststroke, 100 freestyle or 200 butterfly.

“We have a couple weeks to fix some things,” Phelps said, “and I know if I want to be anywhere on the podium, some of those times are going to have to be a lot faster.”

Let Phelps lead the way for Team USA. As he embarks on his Olympic farewell tour, his legacy has one tiny crack in need of caulking. Phelps has never been voted a team captain.

On a men’s squad that includes the 35-year-old Anthony Ervin and a potential quadruple gold medalist in Nathan Adrian, no one is more deserving.
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