Pretty much everyone knows Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. They are titans of the sport, and they carry relevance outside of the pool– other people care about them.
By other people, I mean the average American, who does not follow swimming. For as many fans of swimming as exist, there are twice as many MLB supporters and avid NFL watchers, ten times as many NBA fanatics. But with Phelps and Lochte, over the last 16 years or so, everyone has paid attention to their greatness in the pool.
Phelps’ Olympic success, emphasized by his 19 gold medals and counting, is particularly impressive. No swimmer has come remotely close. As he looks to reach 20 golds these Games in Rio, no other swimmer has reached even ten.
How can we scoff about 8 or 9 Olympic gold medals in one swimmers’ career? Isn’t that, even with Phelps in mind, still very impressive?
Maybe it’s because Phelps’ unprecedented success has spoiled us rotten. He is largely credited for bringing huge amounts of attention to the sport since his first Olympics in 2000, and he (and other great Olympians like Lochte) has made the non-swimming world watch his races, appreciate his medals, and, unfortunately, set the bar too high.
Don’t get me wrong– what Phelps has done is superlatively great. I cannot wait to see what he can do the rest of these Games, and I cannot speak enough about the incredible things he has done for the sport. But, like I said before, he’s spoiled us. And when I say “us,” I am mostly referring to the general audience, the avid sports fans who don’t necessarily watch more than the NBC primetime swimming coverage every four years. They know less about the sport, though, and even those of us who consider ourselves swim fans tend to fawn over the success of the greats and cast negative shadows over those who can’t live up to that standard.
What are Missy Franklin and Allison Schmitt, then? Chopped liver? Think about this: Franklin was THE female face of the 2012 Olympic Games. She won four golds at those Games and broke a world record. In 2013, her 6 golds were the most-ever by a female swimmer at the World Championships. 2011-2013 were three seasons of domination by the bubbly teenager who many recognized as the media darling.
In 2014, Franklin was marred by her back spasms. When she seemed to be healed in 2015, people were disappointed and… mad, even, at her performance. Speculation in the SwimSwam comment boards cast blame at her coach at Cal, her coach from growing up, and at her, as people scrambled to understand why she wasn’t going as fast as she was during her peak. In non-swimming circles, as far as they were concerned, it was all about Katie Ledecky and that’s all that mattered. And now, as she missed the 200 free final in Rio, the name Missy Franklin has become somewhat of a ghost.
We, and I mean all of us, highlight the athletes who can repeat their success more than once. Names like Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, and Dara Torres are just a few names that can attest to that. We are obsessed with those who exhibit exceptional and unprecedented athletic ability, so much so that we can end up casting “everyone else” in a negative light. Maybe that’s common among most sports, but it certainly holds true in swimming.
We focus on how Allison Schmitt failed to come back to defend her 200 free Olympic crown, rather than on how she has fought brilliantly through her battle with depression and made the U.S. team this year for two different events. We chastise Franklin’s coaches and her own abilities when she doesn’t go as fast as she’s been, rather than admire how she dominated the world’s best in backstroke as a teenager and the fact that STILL nobody has come within 1.5 seconds of her 200 back WR from 2012.
This isn’t to say that we should downplay the success of the greats in this sport. However, in a day and age where we monopolize our awe and appreciation in the few baskets of those who can succeed time and time again, we should not consequently hold other athletes to those standards. We can herald Phelps for the longevity of his success without admonishing, or straight-up forgetting, the achievements of other high-achieving athletes in this sport.