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Green: Phelps made his sport matter (March 1)

Mary Green | Friday, March 1, 2013


Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a 12-part series discussing the defining sportsman (or woman) of this century. Here, Mary Green argues for Michael Phelps. Join the discussion on Twitter by using #DefiningSportsman

On the evening of August 11, 2008, millions of Americans were tuned into the same channel, watching the same sporting event and, above all, yelling at their TV screens.

No, they weren’t watching a late-season push for the playoffs in the MLB. It wasn’t a preseason NFL game, with fans eager to see promising draft picks and new offseason acquisitions. Instead, it was a swimming race.

But now that I say that, you know exactly what I’m talking about: the men’s 400-meter freestyle relay at the Beijing Olympics. For the first three legs of the race, it seemed as though Michael Phelps’s quest for a record eight Olympic gold medals would inevitably end at the hands of Alain Bernard and his haughty French squad. 

Enter Jason Lezak, who swims the fastest split in history in that relay and barely out-touches the Frenchman next to him, playing hero that night by preserving history in the making for Phelps.

His teammates in the Water Cube hooted and hollered as they saw the number one flash on the board next to the name “USA,” and Americans across the country celebrated with them.

So now I ask you: before Phelps had burst onto the international sports scene, would you have cared that much about a swim race?

For most people, the answer would probably be no. But Phelps changed all of that. With his riveting attempt to capture eight gold medals in Beijing and outpace Mark Spitz’s seven-gold medal heroics of the 1972 Munich Games, Phelps captivated a countless number of people around the world.

You didn’t have to be an American to follow his spellbinding storyline. You didn’t even have to be a sports fan. With appearances on the covers of popular magazines such as Time and GQ and feature segments on every national news show, it would have been difficult to not know who Phelps was that summer.

Phelps was the talk of the Beijing Games. While Misty May and Kerri Walsh dominated on the sand and Nastia Liukin tumbled her way to an all-around gold, viewers still wanted to know, ‘When is Michael’s next race?’

Even the pettiest Phelps-related headlines grabbed our attention. His unbelievably calorie-laden breakfast. His trademark headphones that he donned before every race. His mother’s new sponsorship with women’s outfitter Chico’s.

But Phelps’s star still shined brightly after Beijing. Of course, there was that particular set of pictures that drew national scrutiny, but he admitted to making a mistake and apologized, showing that he still was the endearing Baltimore boy that Americans grew to love.

He took some time off from the pool the next year, and we said ‘good for him, he deserves it.’ It’s difficult to imagine a similar reaction if James or Tom Brady decided to do the same, but then again, Phelps is in a league of his own.

A few years passed with Phelps continuing his success in international meets while a possible rival emerged for the 2012 London Games in Ryan Lochte, preparing Americans for what was sure to be a fantastic string of showdowns at the next Olympics.

Then the most shocking turn of events occurred when Phelps announced he would retire from swimming after London. This set the stage for a thrilling goodbye tour that saw Phelps claim six more medals, four of them gold, to become the most decorated Olympian of all time and arguably the greatest athlete the world has ever seen.

Scoff if you want at that last statement and say that Jim Thorpe or Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan is really the best. But think about it. Phelps competed in one of the most grueling sports in the world, a sport in which participants use nearly every muscle in their bodies while simultaneously holding their breath for extended periods. He completed exhausting workouts day after day, and he perfected his stroke and his timing through an infinite number of kicks, turns, starts and finishes. And he dominated in the pool like no other swimmer ever had or ever will.

Michael Phelps became the face of an entire sport and dramatically increased that sport’s popularity around the country.

Prior to Phelps, would you have expected a swimmer to make the “SportsCenter” Top 10 ever? Would you have considered a swimmer worthy of the title of “Sports Illustrated” Sportsman of the Year or Associated Press Athlete of the Year, twice?

Would you have even read this article, one entirely about a swimmer, before Michael Phelps?

Then who better to be named the most defining sportsman of the 21st century?

Contact Mary Greenat [email protected]
The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.