This column is five years overdue, but you’ll have to understand why I was reluctant to think it was appropriate back then.
When Michael Phelps announced his retirement from competitive swimming in 2016, a great number of us thought “OK, sure, we’ve seen this before.” Phelps, of course, “retired” in 2013, only to be back in the pool in time to win five more gold medals at the Rio Games in 2016.
And since he was slated to only be 35 at the time of the Tokyo Games (36 due to the COVID-19 postponement), there was real reason to believe he’d eventually choose to compete again. In fact, I wrote a column THEN suggesting that not only did I not believe he was truly retired but that I was preparing for him to get back in the pool and looking forward to seeing him try again in 2020!
But with the Olympics set to get underway July 23, we can acknowledge the reality. I was wrong. This will be the first Olympiad in TWO AND A HALF DECADES that will not include the man who is arguably the greatest athlete in the history of our city. (Wait a second. Is it even arguable? Does this require a qualifier? I know Babe Ruth hit a lot of home runs but 23 friggin’ Olympic golds, for Pete’s sake.)
It’s over. It’s definitely over. Swimming is moving on without him. There will still be some local connections, but there will never be anything quite like the phenomenon we experienced due to Phelps’ greatness. And I hope we can pause for a second to recognize that.
The Towson High alum, of course, was a bit of a complicated character, as his almost unmatched international fame forced him to live out mistakes far more publicly than even the most popular Ravens and Orioles players in history. He has acknowledged a number of his demons, and his work in the realm of mental health is arguably even more significant than anything he did in a swimming pool. (You know what? No, we’re not doing “arguably” this time. It’s inarguable. And that’s a hell of a standard.)
But his sporting greatness was so unbelievably overwhelming that it forced us to obsess about a sport that, if we’re being honest, we’ll probably only take a passing look at as this year’s Olympics unfold. We gathered by the thousands after a Ravens game to watch him swim for a record in 2008. We packed the streets for a “Phelps-tival.” We watched competition at all sorts of odd hours depending on where on the planet the Olympics were occurring. We told everyone we knew in other cities about our first … or second … or, really, fiftieth-hand connections to one of the biggest global superstars of modern times.
(Be honest, your connection is a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend and when you tell the story, you leave out at least two “of a friends,” don’t you?)
Phelps’ warts were somewhat fitting. It was a reflection of the imperfect place that raised him. We all have warts here. We’re not all historically great athletes, but at least we have SOMETHING in common. The man was ours. And he carried that with pride. He offered a positive reflection about our city in every interview he did. His love for this place and his favorite teams was always on display. At a time when outsiders connected Baltimore with “The Wire” and not much more, his success provided an invaluable amount of positive publicity.
We’ll never get to feel this again. There will be more great athletes who compete in Baltimore. There will be more great athletes who will come from Baltimore. But there will never again be something this unique. There will never again be a superstar so overwhelmingly significant and internationally famous who is somehow so equally and unapologetically “Baltimore.”
It’s not just that it was a “once in a lifetime” experience for our city, it’s that it was basically a “once in a lifetime” experience for ANY city at all. Perhaps it has come close with LeBron James and Cleveland, but perhaps you heard there was some friction there at one point. Tiger Woods has never represented Cypress, Calif., in that way.
We’ll understand when this year’s Olympics start. The unearned but proudly displayed inflated sense of self worth that came along with the Olympics will be missing here. And we should take another opportunity to appreciate just how much this one man has meant to our community.
Photo Credit: Dustin Furman/PressBox
Originally published June 16, 2021