Two days before the 200 butterfly final at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials, I get a text message.
Mel, you're presenting the award to the 2-fly winner.
Awesome! I think. I’m probably presenting to Phelps, the odds-on favorite. It’ll be his first event, the one that puts him on his 5th Olympic Team. What an honor!
The last time I presented to Phelps was 8 years ago at the first Omaha Trials in 2008. The house was packed. The huge venue, then a novelty, wowed fans, breathing new life into USA Swimming. I remember my hairs standing on end presenting to Phelps…and then, for some stupid reason, I decided I wouldn’t shake Phelps’ hand, I’d go in for a kiss the way the FINA folks do it. Why not? It’s a formal kiss, a very dignified-award-ceremony-thing-to-do. So, I did. I handed Phelps his award, leaning in puckering up before a crowd of 14,900 swim fans. Alas, Phelps declined.
Eight years later with another award presenting opportunity, I decide to try my luck again. This time I’ll get a kiss. He can’t deny me twice.
The morning of the 200 fly final, I have a skip in my step walking to the hotel elevator. This is a good day, I think. All days with 2-fly finals are monumental, especially with Phelps in the final–
GET OFF THE ELEVATOR, MEL!
The command booms from the Hilton elevator. A large man clad in headphones and a low-brimmed cap looms in the corner. The cramped steel box is packed with swimmers heading to warmups. Everyone freezes in fear. The looming figure? It’s Phelps, a tight grin stretching the corner of his mouth. An awkward moment passes before he notices everyone’s a little stunned, and says, “It’s Mel. That was joke.”
I draft Phelps walking through the hotel towards the skywalk to the CenturyLink Center wondering how he’s going to make it without fans mobbing him. He’s doesn’t. Entering the skywalk, kids swarm him. Phelps signs autographs, saying, “Guys, I can do one photo, then I have to go warmup.” Through the skywalk glass door, I see blond hair racing forward. It’s 2012 Olympic Champion Dana Vollmer, just in time for a photo-bomb.
After the pic, Phelps literally has to pull away from the kids. One young swimmer with chlorine-fried hair, no more than seven years old, hugs Phelps. It’s bear-hug, around Phelps’ waist. The kids squeezes him, mushing his face into Phelps stomach. It’s cute, but for a few seconds it looks like the kid isn’t going to let go.
Over the skywalk, Phelps essentially escapes. He glances back, half-laughing, “That kid tried to kiss me yesterday.”
That night, Phelps takes the 200 fly win, making his 5th Olympic Team. USA Swimming officials lead me through the underbelly of the CenturyLink Center for the awards ceremony. The venue darkens. Music rolls.
Parading out I’m awed by the crowd, the growth of our sport, and pride for the athletes courageous enough to fight for their spot on Team USA under so much pressure. Overcome with emotion, I almost forget my plan–the Phelps kiss.
I take the Trials medal, put it around Phelps’ neck and he grabs my hand shaking it before I can even think. Now he’s pulling me close to say something.
Paraphrasing, Phelps quickly and colorfully communicates that his 2-fly was solid for three 50s, but with a little more rest heading into Rio, that last 50 will be on-point. So, the greatest of all time is being honored for his 5th Olympic berth, and he’s already thinking about what’s next, how to improve… I like that. I like it a lot. That’s the type of focus it takes to win 22 Olympic medals.
Remembering my plan, I finally I lean in, “Buddy, you swam beautifully,” then point to my cheek, “how’s about a kiss?”
I am now 0-2…but I got a good laugh from the GOAT.
Advice for International Olympic Committee officials awarding medals in Rio? Don’t expect a kiss from Phelps.