Michael Phelps is the subject of this column. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. The guy with 23 gold medals. He’s actually from Baltimore. He doesn’t like the Steelers, and he’s text buddies with Ray Lewis. I feel like it should all ring a bell of some sort for you.
After another brilliant week of work in an Olympic swimming pool, Phelps has been pretty convincing about his plans to retire. In interviews with NBC’s Michele Tafoya and Bob Costas Aug. 12-13, he’s been almost defiant. This is it. He means it this time. He’s not coming back in four years. As a father and future husband, he has other things to do in his life, and it’s time to move on from swimming.
For some, Phelps’ confidence in his conviction has been met with skepticism. But many others have echoed his emotions and feelings that this is the “right time” to go out. Phelps has spoken significantly about where he was as a person following the 2012 Olympics (which he had previously alleged were his last) and why it was important for him to be in a better place when he retired. With the true star of the Rio games (his son Boomer) there with his fiancée and mother in the stands watching Phelps pile on five more gold medals, it all just seems so … perfect. Why would he possibly want to potentially ruin the epic final scene of the movie by coming back in four years? Ryan Gosling is already in perfect shape for the role!
Yes, the narrative is pretty perfect if Phelps really does walk away right now. Which is, of course, what makes this all so tricky. I have a couple of thoughts.
First, I hope he changes his mind, largely for selfish reasons. The Olympics are better for Michael Phelps. I just spent a weekend in Myrtle Beach, and every time someone found out we were from Baltimore, they inevitably mentioned something about Phelps. The city has benefited greatly from the publicity Phelps has delivered, but it goes far beyond that. Whether a Baltimorean or not, Phelps has been “must watch” TV. There were no more significant records to break this time around (apologies, Leonidas of Rhodes), yet every race felt important. Every race provided an opportunity to watch one of the greatest athletes of all time perform at a high level.
That wouldn’t change if Phelps was in the pool in Tokyo. Whether competing in one event or six, winning golds or battling simply to make a podium, Phelps in a pool at the Olympics means my TV (and a few million of my friends) is stuck on NBC. So yeah, I hope he’s back. Bethesda, Md.’s Katie Ledecky will likely keep us watching for Olympiads to come, and Harford County’s Chase Kalisz could still have bigger things to come on the international scene. But they’re just not Phelps. (At least not yet in Ledecky’s case.) Phelps is in rarified air when it comes to the all-time greats in any sport.
I don’t know what Phelps is going to do next. I get that he’s a father and there’s a wedding on the horizon. I also get that he’s been working as a volunteer assistant coach for his own coach Bob Bowman at Arizona State. But he has to “do” something. It’s not hard to imagine that part of it will be motivational speaking. The 31-year- old is in line to pocket hefty sums for corporate appearances. NBC’s Mark Lazarus told Sports Illustrated the network would be interested in Phelps as a broadcaster but made it clear currently swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines wouldn’t be going anywhere.
The Towson High School alum will have things to do. But none of that seems to be significant enough to make me think that if suddenly two or three years down the road Phelps feels the “itch,” there would be something that would keep him from choosing to scratch it. In fact, NBC would probably be more than willing to work out a way for Phelps to compete and be involved in broadcasts in Tokyo.
So now … the “legacy” issue. Phelps is going out “the right way.” On “his terms.” Gosling’s agent is halfway through the negotiations. Louis CK is going to play Bowman. It’s all really great.
But it’s important we don’t pretend there would be anything wrong with the final chapter of Phelps’ Olympic career not being quite as perfect. Even if he were to struggle in 2020, he’d still be Michael Phelps. San Diego didn’t ruin Johnny Unitas’ legacy. Washington didn’t ruin Michael Jordan’s. Winning titles might have masked it, but Phelps’ buddy Lewis and fellow NFL icon Peyton Manning were pedestrian at best during their final seasons. Great athletes are great athletes whether they finish with gold medals or not.
Pop quiz: What team did Ed Reed finish his career with? If you said, “I think it might have been the Texans,” “I don’t know” or “the Ravens, right?” you’re close enough. (It was the Jets. And it doesn’t matter.)
Phelps’ legacy as a swimmer, really as an athlete in general, is already in cement. He can’t mess it up, even if he were to somehow attempt a 2020 comeback and fail to qualify. He’s good. Narratives aren’t always as perfect as we want them to be.
His legacy as a human being is what he can cement throughout the next few years by continuing to give back, caring about his hometown and showing he has more to offer the world outside the pool.
And then come 2020, I hope he hops right back in.