Michael Phelps competed in his first Olympic Games in 2000 in Australia at the age of 15, but left without a medal.
When I was 15, I think the only swimming stroke I knew how to perform was the doggy paddle.
Four Olympic Games later, Phelps is now the owner of 21 gold medals — and counting. On Thursday night, he is the favorite to win the 200-meter individual medley, his main competition being his countryman, Ryan Lochte.
A career that spans five Olympics is just remarkable, I don’t care what sport is. It could be a ping pong player and I’d still be amazed.
But to do it in swimming, a sport that requires the utmost maintenance of one’s personal physique, is just that much more impressive. Watching the swimmers line up shirtless prior to a meet is probably one of the more deflating moments for the average American male. In those moments, I am suddenly very hyper-aware of my protruding beer belly.
And then I crack open another beer.
I also will never forget Michael Phelps’s incredible 7-7 run at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. It was right before I began my senior year of college, and I distinctly remember that following Halloween, when it was a popular costume for dudes to wear swimming trunks and wear seven pretend gold medals.
I’m pretty sure I dressed up that Halloween as Frodo from Lord of the Rings. Not kidding.
We glorify and even deify Michael Phelps during the two-week stretch of the Olympics, but we need to appreciate him more. Not only has he represented our country with honor and success, but he’s become one of the most decorated athletes in Olympic history for any country, and he’s also dominated a sport arguably as well as anybody ever has.
He’s also nearly singlehandedly launched swimming into an Olympic primetime event.
This is almost certainly his last Olympic Games. He has three races left. Enjoy them while you can.
All that being said, it’s almost natural for Americans to take our Olympic success for granted. We already assume we’re the best. And we prove it by winning the most medals.
But we forget that for some countries, winning a medal doesn’t come so easy.
Fiji, a small island nation in the south Pacific of less than one million people, has never won a medal in its 60 years of participating in the Olympics. But they were filled with hope that their fortunes might change in 2016, thanks in large part to the introduction of rugby as an Olympic sport. It just so happens to be the county’s national sport.
Lo and behold, Fiji won its first medal on Thursday in rugby. A gold one.
I watched a clip of the Fijian athletes standing atop the dais, with the national anthem blaring, and couldn’t help but feel the intense pride and nationalism that was radiating from their faces as they sang along.
Winning for your country. Even if it took six decades to accomplish.
That, my friends, is what the Olympics is all about.