Dear Michael Phelps

  38 Gold Medal Mel Stewart | August 07th, 2012 | Featured, International, London 2012 Olympics, News

Michael Phelps’ mark on the sport, after 22 Olympic medals, will have a ripple effect for generations.  It already has a name: The Phelps Effect. Michael hasn’t been shy about his goals in swimming: “change the sport, motivate and inspire people to achieve their dreams.”

If Michael has affected your life, share it here. We’re going to keep this column going. Submit your own Michael Phelps testimonial, no more than 500 words, for possible inclusion in this series, “Dear Michael Phelps.”  I’ll start us off…

Summer, 2007: I rolled over in bed, “Tif,” I said to my wife,  “I miss swimming. I want to be involved again. I think the sport’s changing, and…I don’t think it’ll ever be the same.”

Backstory: In my day, swimming was different, a 3rd tier Olympic sport behind track and field and gymnastics that got passing respect eight days every four years.  Swimming was small, felt small, even at the world-class level.  At times it could be almost embarrassing in social situations. The conversations always went the same way: “Oh wow, you’re a gold medalist? Cool. Swimming, huh? So…did you play b-ball, football, anything else?” Awkward pregnant pause…. “You know, why does someone choose swimming? I mean, you’re just going back and forth, and back and forth. Maybe if you tossed a shark or alligator in it might be more interesting. Now that would be good television.”

Belly laughs all around. I’d smile and fake a chuckle. On to the next topic. You might think I’m kidding, but if I had a nickel for every time that exchange happened…

Summer, 2000, Sydney Olympics:  I’m eight years past my Olympic win in the 200 butterfly, and I’m not in the sport at all. Swimming’s a part-time interest.  Someone else, a non-swimmer, tells me this Aussie, Ian Thorpe, is going to be the next Mark Spitz, and that Gary Hall Jr. will star again for Team USA.  I watch and enjoy, but it’s mild, emotionally detached entertainment…until the 200 butterfly final.

Tom Malchow wins. I’m happy for him. I know how much work he’s put in, how much he’s given up. I feel a kinship with him, a 200 fly-brotherhood.  I also catch the last 30 meters of the second American, this Michael Phelps kid. Whoa, he closes fast. I know he’s young, but until I hear the announcer say he’s only 15, it doesn’t sink in. Suddenly I’m on my feet, yelling at Tif, “That’s incredible! That’s a kid…a baby, swimming like a man!”

Summer, 2004, Athens Olympics: Michael wins eight medals, six of them gold. He’s only 19, siding up to NBC host Bob Costas, saying he wants to change the sport. His performance was stunning, but on camera he came across like a 19-year-old, one with stilted media training.  He can’t equal it again in 2008, I thought, when he’s old enough, mature enough to really get the message across. More than anything else I concluded, any kid who has put this kind of work in will surely flameout in the next few years. Swimming’s too tough to keep this kind of success going.

At the time, I was jaded. I’d been living in Los Angeles for a dozen years, and I knew swimming needed more. Sadly, I didn’t think performance alone could deliver the sport the type of respect it deserved.  No one really cared that Phelps trained miles upon miles.  I felt the sport’s greatest ambassador needed to have some sex-appeal to pull-in a huge audience, one that would stop and maybe, just maybe, become a little educated about what it takes to be a world-class swimmer.

Then I saw this July, 2007 cover story on Men’s Journal:

Michael had grown up. The image was captivating, the image of a swimmer that might attract an audience outside of an Olympic year, and it said all the right things. Michael was in top form and on-track to repeat in Beijing, but, more importantly, the story put into context what that meant, posing the question: Is he really the greatest athlete of all-time?  Sex appeal wasn’t necessary, though Michael was clearly maturing into a handsome, young guy. Bottom-line: Michael was earning global attention with good ol’ fashion hard work and staying power.

At World Championships in Melbourne, Michael went seven for seven in the gold medal hunt, but watching his 200 butterfly was like a religious experience; six to seven dolphin kicks off each wall, a precise and gorgeous stroke. To me, Michael looked like a master artist painting the most beautiful 200 meters I’d ever seen.

After Worlds, that’s when I rolled over in bed and said to my wife, “I want to be involved again.” Seven months later I was on deck at the Missouri Grand Prix watching Michael, in person. He put down a 1:53 in-season 200 meters butterfly.  I could barely talk, scarcely put into words what I had witnessed other than one feeling. This is real.  Michael is truly great.

I can’t remember the last time I had an awkward conversation with someone who finds out I’m an Olympic swimmer. The tone is completely different now. I’m asked about times, about split-times, about who’s in contention at the next competition. Strangers with no tie to the sport whatsoever understand that since the hi-tech suits have been banned that world records are mind-blowing performances.

The Phelps Effect has already happened. More kids are entering the sport, and more will follow for generations, but Michael has also raised the prestige of swimming for every swimmer that’s ever invested years of emotion, energy and hard work. Personally, I walk a little taller and feel a little prouder.

Dear Michael, I know many people who swim or swam have similar stories, and I know they feel as grateful as I do for your 22 trips to the medal podium.  Thank you…just, thank you.

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38 Comments on "Dear Michael Phelps"


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4 years 20 days ago

Thank you Michael Phelps!!!!

Jen
4 years 20 days ago

Michael Phelps created my interest in swimming at the 2008 Olympics, but Mel Stewart made that interest stick. Your videos from Bejing were so entertaining and informative, it made me come back for more.

I’ve never been a swimmer, but over the past four years I’ve become semi educated about the sport, mostly through you, Garrett (way back with his Floswimming videos), and Braden (great blog posts and analysis). And as a result, I was sharing that knowledge and promoting all the swimmers to my friends and family (and anyone else who would listen) this time around.

So yes, thanks to Michael. But thank you too Mel.

Nadador
4 years 20 days ago

Dear MP: Your bringing swimming to the forefront of sports will be forever valued! Thank you!

Maddy
4 years 20 days ago

Growing up as a swimmer it always seemed like the other kids never understood how hard swimming was. It was always annoying to have the sport I practiced every single day ignored by the world. You have changed all of that. I’m so honored to have swam in the same era as you and to have witnessed the changes you have made in the sport. Thank you so much for all of your hard work, and for inspiring the entire world.

Liliana
4 years 20 days ago

I was a swimming fan when I was a kid, I was mesmerized by butterfly stroke – my heroes were Michael Gross and Pablo Morales. When their career ended my interest in swimming slowly but surely diminished. No, it wasn’t completely gone but there wasn’t any thrill for me there anymore. I was in some kind of ‘hibernation’ between 1990 and 2000. I first noticed Phelps in Fukuoka 2001, when he became the world champion in 200 fly, of course, but what truly made me aware of him was his brilliant performance in Barcelona 2003. That’s when I decided swimming deserves my attention again and I was watching closely his performance in Athens. I became his devoted fan after Melbourne 2007. It was, and still is, in my opinion, the most magical moment of his career – the moment when you realize anything is possible with that man. Beijing was a promise (made in Melbourne) fulfilled.
I really thought he was going to retire after Beijing, so everything we got after that climax of his career is a pure bonus. He could have left in 2008 and he’d still be a legend.
Thanks Michael for swimming in London and for all the amazing moments and memories we’ll have forever in our hearts.

TH
4 years 20 days ago

Thanks, Michael for elevating the sport. Mission accomplished!
And for inspiring Mel to get back into to it, providing a forum like this one…(Thanks, Mel!)

jean claude
4 years 20 days ago
Swim Swim
4 years 20 days ago

Phelps is dating her.

Dasher
4 years 17 days ago

She’s Phelp’s girlfriend. Nothing wrong with staying up late and having some fun.

4 years 20 days ago

We lived in Columbia MD when Michael won so many medals in Beijing. Gus was already swimming Age Group with CAA, and the summer neighborhood team. But, the fact that Michael was from Baltimore and was swimming in a pool that Gus had actually swam in, was magnetic. We were glued to the TV for the swimming events, and have been ever since. The highlight of swimming for Gus has been getting to know the athletes through USA swimming, and local clubs. We lived on Long Island for a few years, and Gus was fortunate to participate in the Fitter and Faster tour there in 2010. Yes, Gus was crazy excited (as was I) to meet you-Mel, and also Matt Grevers!. Since then we have moved to Orlando, FL. We’ve had the privledge of watching Ryan Lochte swim here in Gus’ home pool! What an amazing experience for both of us. At the age of 16, Gus is not near the magnitude of an Olympic swimmer, but he loves swimming, and watching Michael and Ryan just keeps that fire burning. It makes me so happy to see this sport come into the spotlight. It is an amazingly difficult workout, and easily something that can be done for a lifetime. Thank you Michael for doing what you do, and helping my son to be a more athletic and healthy person!

Tim Waud
4 years 20 days ago

Having attended the recent Olympic Trials in Omaha, I stood in amazement in how far USA Swimming has come in the past eight years. USA Swimming has gone from a local 50 meter facility to an Arena Sport. I hope to see the next Olympic Trials held in an even larger facility, hopefully an outdoor football stadium in preparation for the Olympics being held outdoors in Rio. I would like to give full credit to Michael Phelps. Michael Phelps built those two pools (2008 & 2012) in Omaha. Swimming and Michael Phelps have been the topic of conversation at most dinner tables for the past eight years. Thank you Michael Phelps, the swimming world is a much more respected sport because of your dream.

Loretta
4 years 20 days ago

Michael Phelps has sustained a spotlight never before seen on the sport of swimming. For once, the general public got a taste for how grueling training is, how much of one’s life is dedicated to the sport, and how thrilling swimming can be for one and all. As a Masters swimmer, Phelps has helped re-spark my love for swimming and has made me want to push my own limits in workouts and races. What an inspiration!

Aquaphobic
4 years 20 days ago

Dear Michael Phelps,

Your dominance in swimming made me realize that I’m not actually that good, and it made me quit the sport…jk, but your ability to crush the competition made everyone around the world pay attention to swimming. Your accomplishments have landed you in the conversation of all time greats. I too have had many conversations about swimming with outsiders to the sport, many of which have ended with a lack of respect for me as a swimmer. Michael Phelps has helped raise awareness and knowledge about the sport of swimming, and no one can honestly ignore the difficulty or achievements of swimmers anymore. I have always been proud to be a swimmer, but I no longer need to explain why, everyone already knows because of what Phelps has done.

Sincerely: Benefitter of the Phelps Effect

DCD3
4 years 20 days ago

When I saw your first sentence I was sure you were Ian Thorpe

RNadine
4 years 20 days ago

hahaha!!! good one ^^^

Steveo
4 years 20 days ago

Now when someone says…”I want to be like Mike” there is now a follow up question that wasnt ever there before…Phelps or Jordan?
THANK YOU for everything you did for the sport and handeling the good and bad like a man and true sportsman!

Matt
4 years 20 days ago

Dear Michael,

When I was 13 my Dad surprised me with tickets to the 2000 Olympic Trails. After we watched you make the team I told my him I was going to make the 2004 Olympics too and with extra motivation went from being a sub-par distance swimmer to surprising myself with an Olympic Trials cut four years later. With high hopes in Long Beach, I found myself in last place of my 1500 heat (by a considerable margin) with 50m to go, but decided to dolphin kick 15m underwater off the last turn in true Michael Phelps fashion. While I never made an Olympic Team I wanted to thank you for the inspiration to jump in the pool at 4:30am on all those cold winter mornings to chase my dreams.

I hope you enjoy retirement.

Matt

4 years 20 days ago

Dear Micheal,

You inspired me to join a club team, and make my goal of gaining a scholarship to college a reality. When I was young at summer league meets parents said I was dumb for that, theres no money in swimming. And theres not a allot but you can find it if you look. Also you made it cool, and very smart to wear a jammer or legs during the suit era for fly. After beating Ian to the wall, which was sweet but makes me cry cause that always happens to me. When the suit that went away, at my next taper meet, my first A10 conference meet. I added time in all of my events except for the 100fly. I dropeed .8, after not dropping for 2 years. I was used to a jammer for fly. When I got on the blocks for the 50 I felt like a naked skrony 18 year old kid amongst a feild of men, it was over before i hit the water.

Thanks,
-nate
also you made speedos cool to the general non swimming community

Celina S
4 years 5 days ago

Michael phelps is our inspiration here in tanzania! He made me believe that one day I can reach my goal(OLYMPICS)!

4 years 20 days ago

Dear Micheal,

You made it cool to wear legs or a jammer in fly during the suit era, and it helped me considerable into the transition to textile. Your goals and performances helped nonswimming people believe in me and my goals, and have a sincere interst in swimming.

-nate
ps see ya in the rio for a 4 peat in the 100fly to tie carl lewis

Wolfie4525
4 years 20 days ago

Mel- you made my brother laugh and tell countless Mel stories about your escapades at Tennesee and Charlotte. Thank you for telling the stories that swimmers/ swammers need to hear. The Paralympic commentary has been incredible- and as a Paralympian I appreciate your point of view.

no doubt that Tom would be your biggest fan and provide some obscure comments that would sure to be irrevant while somehow would make you laugh.

Michael- thank you for being the ship that lifted all swimmers- boats- revel in your success and the effect of your swimming will be something you will appreciate the rest of your life- enjoy the moment!

fluidg
4 years 19 days ago

The Phelps Effect lifted Masters swimming to an entirely new and unthinkable level this summer when the USMS Nationals were held in the Olympic Trials venue in Omaha the week after the trials. Mind-blowing to experience a masters event on that level. Rob Butcher, et al, were smart enough to surf that wave—thanks to Michael for the tsunami.

4 years 19 days ago

Thanx forever Michael! YOU ARE THE MAN

Kirk
4 years 19 days ago

Most of the world saw you for the first time at fifteen. I, like many in the Maryland LSC and our zone got to see you much earlier. What was the same regardless of when over the past 27 years that you encountered Michael you knew this kid/man was special. Every time I see him swim I can stop thinking about the first time I saw him race as an eight year in summer league at Padonia Park Pool at summer champs and watching him walk up and down the last heat of the 25 fly asking “what’s your time” and then informing all the competitors (including my swimmer Joey B) that they were 2 seconds slower then his time as he was slapping his arm against his lat. I also had the opportunity to see him as a coach on the zone team as he started taking down nag record after nag record and ask his age group coach Tom Himes at the time if he could carry this drive and determination into adult hood? Obviously we all now know the answer to that question! Thanks for the memories.

NewGuest
4 years 19 days ago

Well eight-year-olds will be eight-year-olds. He’s obviously learned a lot about how to win graciously, as he now demonstrates some of the best sportsmanship I’ve ever seen in sports. His best legacy of all.

Kirk
4 years 18 days ago

I viewed it as his ready room, and if memory serves me well he was gracious at age eight by giving high fives to the swimmers in the lanes aside of him.

Lesley k Sleath
4 years 19 days ago

Thanks Mel for that inspiring insight into what the Phelps Effect means. Have you ever thought about writing your autobiography?
I’ve never been a swimmer but have loved sport with a passion since my Grandad fostered my interest in the Olympics since childhood. It was swimming at the Olympics that captivated me most during my childhood probably due to not getting so much coverage at other events. I remember British Swimmers like Wilkie,.Goodhew, & Moorehouse winning Golds for Team GB at successive Olympics, then as aUniversity Student I ,shared accomodation with members of Loughborough University Swim team. I marvelled at their dedication and enthusiasm for training. One student Julie Bradshaw was a long distance swimmer who had swam the Channel as a 15 years old and has completed 3 way swims of our biggest lake Windermere as well as Manhattan Island.Her swimming these days revolves around Open Water Charity Swims.
More recently as an employee of Loughborough College I have been surrounded by Team GB SWIM TEAM including Liam Tancock. As you can see swimming has featured heavily in my life without having been a competitor in swimming myself.
Going back to Michael Phelps he is such an inspiring role model. He has made swimming cool for a new generation very much like Usain Bolt is doing for athletics. i am delighted that he has lit up the London Olympics very much like he dominated the Bejjing Games. Mark Foster and Ian Thorpe two of the experts on the commentary team for BBC Sport have referred to the retirement of Phelps as being the end of the “Phelps Era”.
The crowds in the aquatics centre have taken him to their hearts and when he won Gold to overtake the Gymnasts total for most golds everyone was on there feet willing him to victory. Those victories showed the world he wasn’t ready to give up his crown as best ever swimmer just yet.
Michael Phelps will remain in the hearts of many for generations to come just like the London 2012 Olympics

Nelson KU Goldenbear
4 years 19 days ago

Thank you Michael for always surprising and shocking the world with your swims. You’ve grown the sport so much with your presence and have elevated the level of competitiveness to such an insane level non-swimmers can’t even comprehend. I must say I was rooting for Lochte these games (who still did an amazing job), but you have cemented your legacy with how you’ve performed.
To the staff at Swimswam.com, you guys have done a truly incredible job with this site. I’ve been a follower of Floswimming when I competed in college (wednesday workouts were my favorite, aslo Garrett thank you for your help when Kutztown University cut the Men’s program), then on to Swimnetwork after college where I discovered Mel and his GMM interviews. Swimswam.com has kept me in the loop. And with the addition of Braden, Gary Hall Jr. Dave Cromwell and all the other guys you’ve got everything covered. The content on this site is incredible and creates an atmosphere where people from around the world can discuss what they love, Swimming. Swimswam.com ROCKS! So please continue to do so!

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About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly.As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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