Swimming Opinion / Swimming News courtesy of Katherine Jumbe
My sister makes fun of me for my late-to-the-party interest in Michael Phelps. Back in 2007 – 08, when he was breaking world records, dominating the sport and eating up space on magazine covers, he barely registered with me. I don’t know how I managed such ignorant bliss; we were on the University of Michigan campus at the same time. Then again, I essentially failed out of swimming lessons in middle school, a feat most people don’t realize is possible.
Anyway, I didn’t watch the Olympics at all in the summer of ‘08; I was moving back into my parents’ house, preparing for a new job and figuring out the best way to support my mom as she negotiated life with early-stage dementia. I do remember hearing in ‘09 about Phelps’ suspension for smoking pot, but what was that to me?
By 2012, my life was both unchanged and unrecognizable. I was still living in my childhood bedroom, which frustrated me to no end. I was working for the same employer. And my mother’s dementia had compromised everything she loved; there would be no more travel, no more coffee with friends, no more board games with family. Our evenings and weekends were consumed by caregiving, and I lived in a constant state of regret, tallying the long list of things my mom wanted to pursue and never would again.
Watching someone lose the ability to read a book or take a walk or swallow food, I spent a lot of time contemplating the limits of the human body. I grappled, too, with the narrow confines of my own existence, struggling to make peace with a schedule, a social life, and a career that revolved around my role as a caregiver. I wasn’t resentful, but I wasn’t happy.
Enter the 400 IM. Before that day in July 2012, I had no idea what Phelps was up to in his career. I had certainly never heard of Ryan Lochte. As far as I knew, both men were swim instructors at my local YMCA. I didn’t even catch the race itself, just the image of Phelps hauling himself up from the water, a look of disgust furrowing his brow.
Seeing Phelps struggle like that – and reading sports writers’ reaction to that struggle – was a fascinating window into the American psyche. We like winners. We love prodigies. We root for up-and-comers. But we abhor those who persist in the public eye past their prime.
And there was Phelps in London, coming in fourth, unable to meet even the reduced expectations of his fans. The world was still invested in Michael Phelps, Boy Wonder. They would have to settle for a Phelps whose body was tired, whose best times were behind him, and whose myopic desire for supremacy was compromised by a growing passion for friends and fun and experiences beyond the pool.
What I loved in that moment was that Phelps didn’t run around apologizing – not for craving adventure, not for lacking motivation, not for coming up short. He had already traded perfection for a personal life and admitted as much; losing clearly frustrated him, but he could live with it. He stepped onto the starting blocks in London not to prove that he was the same kid from four years before, but to test what his 27-year-old self could do, and to savor it, whatever the outcome.
4,000 miles away, something resonated. Like most people approaching 30, I was struggling to figure out what counted as maturity and what counted as giving up or settling for less. As dissimilar as our lives were, watching Phelps lose at something he loved and then watching him live to fight another day brought me a sense of peace. It reminded me that while I couldn’t have all the success I wanted in that moment, the things I surrendered enabled me to be with my mom before she passed away. I had made my choices, and I could live with them.
So I, for one, am not worried about Phelps being back in 2014. If he comes out at Nationals and fails to win a single race, that’s not a tragedy; that’s just the risk inherent in competition. It’s the same risk courted by young stars like Katie Ledecky and Chase Kalisz, and by veterans like Lochte and Natalie Coughlin. Furthermore, it is good for young stars like Ledecky and Kalisz to witness a life beyond the pinnacle of a career, especially because they will reach their own pinnacles when they are still very, very young.
The only shame would be if Phelps wanted to compete, but chose instead to spend 40 years doing nothing, afraid to disturb the shine on some medals he earned when he was 23. As Billie Jean King said in a recent interview with the New York Times, “Play as long as you can, because someday you can’t play, even if you want to. If you’re willing to pay the price, just keep going.”
About Katherine Jumbe
Katherine Jumbe holds a master’s degree in education from the University of Michigan. She works for a youth development organization in Minnesota and her only swimming-related accomplishment was registering her 63-year-old father for a stroke development class in 2014. He has already surpassed her abilities in the pool.