by Bert Bartlett
It’s still summer, and hot, and amidst the competitive irrelevance of pre-season, Saints fans unwittingly, because of all the stuff that has gone on this year, have become at risk for season burnout though a meaningful football hasn’t even been kicked off yet. Souls Of The Saints has always liked it though, when the games and real life collide, bump shoulders, and careen down in varying degrees of awkwardness, which is essentially what the Bountygate production was. Call it the human element. And though there has been plenty of that to write about (and may still be), this page has always at least attempted to avoid concurrent overkill. So to freshen up, and though the total of what I know about competitive swimming could be put on the back of one hand with a marks-a-lot, we’re going to venture out and take a dip in the pool – about one Michael Phelps.
How could it not be emotional? Near the end of his fourth Olympiad, spanning a dozen years, Phelps bent his knees, leaned over, wing spun his arms, and fluttered his hands, set to leap into the pool for what would be his final individual event, the 100 meter butterfly, or the relatively short two lap headbob. What, if anything, went through his mind? There was hardly time – to think about all that he has sacrificed for, or savor, all that the Olympics have provided him in return. The days – years – of water logging it for grueling, daily, 6 hour sessions, often twice, even thrice a day, were over. Yeah those days, when the fingers were so shriveled and the body was so spent it didn’t really feel anything anymore. When I could tell exactly how much chlorine was in the pool – or even if someone pissed in it. Stinking water. Sick of it. But it was the mindlessness of all the repetition that was the hardest part. It seemed like forever, over and over again. Trapped, nowhere to go. Out of things to think about. Like there was no point to anything. Only I could make the time go by faster, till I could get the hell out of there. By how fast and how long – I could swim.
Now, ready to dive in, there was just this 100 meter gig left. Yet another one, in a long line of them. But this one happened to be his last. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if he laid an egg with it, but it sure would seem like an improper ending. No, this wasn’t a Win One For The Gipper kind of swim. It was a Do It Right kind of swim. It isn’t the medals. I have plenty of those. Because he knew, when he was able to do that, the large majority of the time, things turned out fine, one way or another. But with the finality of it all, concentration couldn’t be easy. Coaches often mistakenly refer to this as focus (superfluous, baneful jock talk). Indeed, athletes perform at their optimum when they don’t think too much, when they can get into that endorphin brain fueled zone of – just do, in congruence with maximum physical exertion. Somebody in Nike’s marketing department knew this. The best don’t think really, they process. What results are instincts. Ask Joe Montana what he was thinking about on Super Bowl game winning drives and he’d probably tell you – not much. But it’s not a straight line to get there, and staying there is easier than getting there.
In Phelps went, with the rest of them, swivelling hips and torso in the best imitation of fish human beings can make. Heck, they don’t even first come up for air until almost halfway into the first lap. Gosh, these people swim fast. Television does not do justice to it. You see the officials walking briskly at pool side to keep up that is a slow jog for most of us. If they clipped on rubber flippers from Walmart, we’d need bikes to keep pace, and couldn’t turn around as fast. Naturally, they don’t separate much. These are world class swimmers, all tolling by the same Big Bens. Phelps was a bit behind in turning for home, still not much separation. A body length is a mile in this stuff. With less than 50 meters to go, or half a lap, amidst the splash, Phelps looked hopelessly beaten. NBC’s announcer said as much, tapering off a “it’s gonna be hard for him from here…”, as he eyeballed to identify other potential winners in the lanes. Any however slight lapse in mechanics at this point of a race is fatal. As they got closer, Phelps’ head seemed to rise higher out of the water, with each overhead stroke. The black cap with USA on it came more visible. And the arms really started wailing, long powerful swings, highlighting the lats that he sculpted simply by doing what he has been doing for most of his life. But the swimmers were still clustered. The wall wasn’t far away. The scene looked, felt – perilous. This is far from my best swim, but I can still win it from here. Breathe. Deeper. Extend. Finish your kick. Again. Farther. Higher. Harder. Smoother. Push. A few more times, buddy. You’ve been here, done this. You got nothin’ to lose now, anyway. Last dance. Go on. All you got. Now!
Phelps has had plenty of heart stopping finishes, those making his legend. He took over this race and glided on by, somehow, right when it mattered. His finish wasn’t spectacular, not particularly “punching” the wall, as they say. In fact, him not doing so in another earlier event cost him first place to the South African LeClos, who was second this time, by a hand in the next lane. But it was good enough to win, again. The cameras panned to Mom in the stands, who buried her head in her arms, and next to her, the sister stood and gleamed. Most refreshingly was the pan back to Phelps, who, after hitting the wall, lungs at max exhalation, turned around and glanced back at the scoreboard they all immediately look at, to find out who won. Fans know before they do! He floated off to the side and, through mirrored goggles, seeing the result that he wanted to see, he inhaled and spat out the customary mist of pool water, allowing himself a smile. The announcer summed it up best; “oh, how I’m gonna’ miss this guy”.
In interviews following with NBC’s Bob Costas, Phelps’ attitude could not have been more perfect, having wisdom belying a 27 year old. In looking at tape of himself at his first Games, in 2000 at the scrawny age of 15 (in which he won no medals), he said “he had no idea what he was doing”. At the 2012 Games, Phelps finished a dull, non-qualifying 4th in his first event, losing to “rival” swimmer Ryan Lochte in the process. Lochte had gotten some public relations mileage out of video of some of his unorthodox training methods, such as tossing around 650 lb. tractor tires, and standing up and throwing beer kegs behind his head (we were never told if they were full), declaring beforehand that these Games were “his time”. By the way, Phelps really has no rivals other than himself after all that he has accomplished. Lochte is an accomplished, excellent swimmer in his own right but his self promotion was using a step ladder. Phelps simply explained that after the slap of that first race’s finish, that only then he realized he was now at the Olympics, knowing he had not trained as hard as he could for them, but as hard as he wanted to, or could, at this point in his life. He said early on in London he “didn’t feel that good in the water” and would simply have to make the best out of things from that point on. That he did. Also he was in no mood to “pick on” any of hsi races, and that cannot lamentif he could have won a few more. He hot exactly “what he deserved” relative to his training.
Predictably, the subject matter floated around to whether he might still swim again, at the 2016 Games in Rio, despite having gone on record as saying this was his last time out. The goad of a bait was there. Costas mentioned his mother wanted to go to Rio (Hey Mom, thanks for the encouragement, but how ’bout backing the hell off, please. Parents living too vicariously through the athletic exploits of their offspring has known on occasion to be a societal problem, with not so good consequences. Besides, after 18 gold medals, 3 silvers, and 1 bronze, your son has nothing more to prove, nor does he owe himself or anybody else, any more competitive swimming. That means you, the family, the agent, the fans, Team USA, the sport, or the Games. If he wants to go in the water, let it be like anybody else, like at the beach.) Phelps said nope, he was done, and would go to Rio with his mom, but to be in the stands to watch and support Team USA. He seemed more confident and at peace about this decision than plenty of other great athletes who simply haven’t known when or how – to quit. He also said his “next chapter” in life would be about helping kids from work in his foundation.
No doubt his decision is the correct one. Swimming for more medals at 31 would be little more than belaboring his ego, and his remarkable accomplishments have inspired and spawned a whole generation of young, fresh, newbie swimming machines from all around the world, who all want to be like Mike. They’ve been shooting for him since 2004 in Athens. Mark Spitz garnered plenty of attention when he won medals at the Olympics years back, but that seemed to be more about country. By dominating his sport like no other, Phelps has put a global face on it it has never had. There can be no higher compliment in his endeavor.
Incidentally, after the Olympics, on one of the ESPN morning talk cable shows, the subject was broached about what was a more “meaningful” award, an Olympic gold or a Super Bowl ring. It was embarrasing how unanimously the ex-NFL players at the table voted, elbow bumping and guffawing about “special” and “1 of 53”, blithely ignoring the fact that NFL players get opportunities to win a ring every year instead of once every four, and that their competiton pool is self contained to 32 teams, and does not include the infinite rest of the world. It wasn’t one of their brighter moments, not that the world’s axes tilt any differently on the proper answer.
In closing, we don’t toss bouquets here, just fleur- de – lyses, and aplenty go to – Michael Phelps. We wish him well. Wonder if he’s a Saints fan?
VIDEO : The Link To Michael Phelps’ Final Individual Race, Courtesy of Youtube: