Artwork by David Myers
All of last week, there was one man whose Olympic quest I followed with bated breath. Thrilling as it was to witness history in the making, it wasn’t his gold medal tally that held me enthralled or his prowess in the pool that had me rooting for him.
As the world watched him swim 17 olympic races in 9 days and winning gold after gold medal, I was completely humbled by the thought of this man’s life in between the times I see him in the pool. While news headlines proclaimed his undeniable genius and brand labels heralded a new marketing god, I wondered how much sweat, tears and pain had gone into Michael Phelps’ olympic destiny. And carrying as much weight in expectations and in physical exertion as he did in this olympics, I marveled at his will-power, determination, imagination and belief.
To top off my Phelpsian admiration, he has thus far seemed to be genuine, modest, and unaffected by the enormity of his newfound fame. While the media is swirling with predictions of his celebrity and comments that Phelps has to learn to become more marketable (he is too simple, plain and uninterested at the moment), I really hope that Michael Phelps won’t let all this temporary hoopla tarnish the true gold that is his heart.
Today’s Straits Times Interactive published this interview with Phelps that finally gave me a glimpse into the long road he took to his olympic success. This from a man who suffered from ADD (attention deficit disorder) as a child and who hails from a broken family. I share it here because it inspires me, and because I hope that it may also inspire you.
From Straits Times Interactive, Thursday 21 August 2008.
BEIJING: The interview is delayed. Please hold on. Michael is eating. The leanest, toughest body this side of the Yangtze is being fed McDonald’s.
Okay, fine, he’s lived on pasta for weeks, done 17 swims, won eight gold medals, made history. Even classic heroes are allowed junk moments.
The most famous athlete in the world right now is in lethargic heaven. He’s actually not moving, he’s doing what he said he has waited for all fortnight. Sitting still. This is Shakespeare with his quill down.
No medals adorn him, that wouldn’t be him, for he has a nice coating of modesty about him. He’s sitting in a dull room, lit by white television lights, wearing a white T-shirt and an impressive yawn.
No, no, it’s not our questions because we haven’t asked any yet. It’s just that his life has been, you understand, a trifle hectic.
His life has changed (he’s richer, in gold and in dollars), but some things don’t change. Here, too, he lives by the clock. Everyone gets only so much time with him. In the Omega Pavilion, this is only fitting.
Time defines Phelps. If this is his time, then it is because of the time he has put in the pool. To the point where he could write a thesis on tiredness and a dissertation on pain.
To comprehend how he could race 17 times in nine days, we have to briefly revisit his youth, when he began his tryst with the ridiculous.
The longest race at the Olympic pool is the 1,500m (1,640 yards), but Phelps famously did 5,000 yards straight in the pool. At 55 seconds per 100 yards. No rest in between every 100 yards.
To give this perspective, the 100m world record holder Eamon Sullivan would swim the 100 yards in about 43 seconds. And Phelps was doing the 100 yards 50 times. He was also 15.
It was so wearying that even now Phelps winces: ‘It was the worst thing. I used to always complain to Bob (Bowman, his coach), ‘I’m not going to do this, I don’t need to do this’.
‘And Bob said, trust me, it’ll pay off down the road. He used to have to give me little incentives. I used to love BYOC, which was Be Your Own Coach for a workout, which means you do whatever you want (i.e. play games).
‘He gave me incentives when we had timed swims because he knows I like to be rewarded and that was his way to get me to swim fast. It was so tough, and you’re so sore, you climb out of the pool and pretty much go to bed. It takes every ounce of your energy.’
Ian Thorpe recently spoke about his body shaking uncontrollably after a torrid workout, and he loved it; it was proof of what he could withstand. He called it ‘an athlete’s feeling’.
Phelps knows this feeling, he has understood also, as only athletes do, the idea of investing hours for a moment of a few minutes that comes four years later.
As he explains: ‘It’s something I learnt from Bob at a very young age. That everything you do you’re not going to see immediate rewards, it’s going to take a long time before we see the improvement. If you stay positive, and you think anything’s possible, you can do whatever you want.’
All those lengths of the pool was like a machine tuning itself, being tinkered with, being oiled, getting prepared, obviously, for one insane fortnight in Beijing.
It’s why Phelps says, once on the blocks, he is not thinking, he’s ready. ‘Once I’m getting up to race, to compete, I don’t think. I’m there to do a job, that’s all I am thinking about.’ What he’s done, he says, is ‘programmed myself’ for greatness.
But before races, after races, to get to his point of brilliance, Phelps’ real weapon is not body but mind. His virtues are both the quantity, and purity, of his desire and his perseverance.
He admits there were days this past week ‘where I was so tired, exhausted, I just wanted to go back to bed’.
But his response was always mighty, for he told himself: ‘This is the Olympic Games, I can’t be tired, I’ve got to get up. If I didn’t get up, then why am I here. This is the biggest of the big.’
Of all his mental attributes, what is most staggering perhaps to any one of us, who might have crouched at the start of a 100m foot race, is his confidence.
Surely, I ask, there was one moment, where doubt visited. After all, what he was trying had never been achieved.
He shook his head. ‘You can’t doubt. If you doubt, then that’s it. The biggest thing is staying positive and imagining anything is possible. Because it really is.’ Yes, now we know.
Time never seems to run out for him, but it has for us. It has been a short time, but a good time. He answers a few more questions, thankfully doesn’t yawn, and then the minders bark.
When we leave, I look behind, he’s sitting still, waiting for the next interrogator. He doesn’t look it, but there’s no question, Michael Phelps is having the time of his life.