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This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Robert Sullivan, who covered nine Olympics for Sports Illustrated and Time from 1980 and 2002.
Not every generation of kids gets the sports heroes it deserves. Way back when, just as a for instance, young boys who liked the fight game were given the racist meathead heavyweight John L. (no relation) Sullivan. Contrast their ill fortune with my generation’s good luck, as we were bequeathed the fantastically faceted, ever inspiring Ali.
I, as a boy in the Hub’s sphere of influence, was blessed not only by national figures like Ali and Jim Brown but by hometown heroes Parilli, Yastrzemski, Russell and Bobby Orr: earlier-era equivalents of contemporary Beantown’s Brady, Mookie, Kyrie and Brad Marchand. My sport was not swimming—you should see me swim—but tennis, and my ultimate hero was the estimable Aussie Rod Laver. If looking for an American, I had Billie Jean King and then, shortly later, the astonishingly heroic Arthur Ashe. I fortuitously predated, in terms of idols required, Connors and McEnroe. Years later, I happened to be covering a Davis Cup match in Bucharest, of all places, and the very small contingent of Yanks on the premises included Ashe as captain and a fractious team made up of—one time only!—both Jimmy and Johnny. My impressions of all three men were confirmed that weekend.
So, I enjoyed a solid upbringing with my firmament of sports heroes. My kids have progressed through their formative years as swimmers, and have been similarly blessed.
Understand: There can be a difference between a great player, even a superstar, and a hero. You know a hero when you see one (and so does Nike). To look but briefly at the sport in question: Are five time Olympic champ Nathan Adrian and Gentle Giant Matt Grevers, with 33 bigtime medals, six of them in the Games, heroes? Certainly to some they are, and deservedly so, but in the broad context of gathering about them a whole generation of kids, probably not. They are the Murray to Federer and Nadal, much as Coughlin can be seen as something of a Sharapova in the Williams Sisters era.
As my kids grew up, there were two principal heroes, and then three: Michael, Ryan and Missy. As swimmers, my kids grew up at a very good time.
Just before the Beijing Games, our elder daughter started swimming for the Boys and Girls Club Marlins and my wife and I started getting used to three-hour meets. Just after the Beijing Games, those same meets, with the same teams invited, were each four-and-a-half hours long. That’s a sign that something—or someone—has galvanized a sport. I remember when Jimmy and Chrissie came along in American tennis, towns all over, including ours, started laying in asphalt courts. Who knows how much farmland was repurposed as fairways and greens due to Arnold Palmer?
Michael Phelps was not necessarily a reluctant hero, but he had never raised his hand for the job. He had raised his hand to be great, as Ryan and Missy would, too. This is always a question: Does a sports hero have a responsibility to behave as a sports hero? I am ambivalent on this. We all have a responsibility to behave properly in society, and such as the President, who is ever a claimant as a moral exemplar, does have a duty to set an example—a duty sometimes neglected, but let’s not go there.
Michael seemed a fine young man, and the argument here is that USA Swimming did him no favors. Having reaped bounties in participation and money thanks to Michael, they suspended him because a sorry friend posted a picture of him toking at a party. This was the sanction of an organization that saw coaches leering, and worse, in locker rooms for years before doing anything about it—and only acting then because the news was breaking. Of course, Michael’s suspension, like Ryan’s later one for peeing in public, wouldn’t affect the meets that would be scheduled for a national television audience. When, in other words, the jocks were needed by the suits.
We adults always get it approximately five years wrong when assessing at what age children are impressionable. Certainly most of USA Swimming’s juvenile competitors knew of weed before Michael informed them, and many of the lads among them had probably peed behind the gas station. There are always these grey areas in this hero business. I was reminded, in Ryan’s case particularly, of the skier Bode Miller. He was constantly badmouthed by the US Ski Team; never by his fellow athletes, but by the older folks who ran the organization. Why? Because he trained largely outside the team. His personal regimen turned him into the best American male skier ever, but no matter, he was a renegade, proud of it, and therefore not to be admired. Ah, but a grey area to the grey area: Had the ski federation so quickly forgotten the Mahre brothers, Steve and Phil? The twins had, in the 1980s, turned themselves into the two best-ever US male skiers (pre-Bode) by training almost exclusively with each other, a kind of Team Mahre. But the Mahres were “good guys” and Bode was a recalcitrant and unapologetic “rebel.” Even adults prefer some of our heroes to others, and usually not the heroes their kids prefer.
Luci and I always told Caroline and Jack that Michael and Ryan seemed like fine and dedicated young men, worthy of respect and even idolatry. Things like bong shots on Instagram and illicit beer drinking (leading to public pee) were now part of the game, and it was a game, a game these two great swimmers hadn’t yet learned (or cared to learn) to play by all of the rules all of the time. Luci and I told the kids to judge Ryan by how he behaved during an appearance at a Marlins practice, staying late to show them breathing tricks, and that they can better judge Michael and Ryan by how well they seemed to get along as teammates, even though they were obviously very different people. Michael and Ryan, we said, had been busted by folks who happened to be in charge at the time. Think back: There was a gymnastics federation in charge at the same approximate time, and we see how that’s turned out. I’m sure the coat-and-tie gym rats were doing a fine job of sanctioning their athletes back then.
To our kids’ triumvirate of swimming heroes was added, just before the London Games, Missy. There were not then, nor would ever be, any flies on her. Charming and charismatic don’t even begin to say it. So buoyant, so aflight, she coaxed even old Michael to play along on that airplane karaoke thing, and after coming through so spectacularly in the water, she brought that big smile home. I remember her at kids day of the US Open tennis tournament in New York, singing and dancing along with even-taller Novak Djokovic. You could see it in the faces: These children, half a heartbeat younger than my own kids, loved her.
Michael is doing very well in his retirement and is reaching out to any and all, including Missy, who have fought, like him, the scourge of depression that seems almost unavoidable after rising so high and so exceeding human expectations. Ryan has been busted again, but as long as he wants to swim this seems to be the deal for one who has embraced the role of anti-hero to Michael’s hero. And now Missy retires from competition but hardly from anything else. None of the three are swimming against any clock this weekend, but what an era they defined in our sport! My kids were lucky to dive in when they did, lured by this very proper if disparate collective of 21st century heroes. As Caroline had hung up the Speedo and Jack continues to swim in college, I hope they continue to admire the athletes they once admired—I hope they admire them all the way through.
I notice that Rod Laver still seems to be doing fine.
Robert Sullivan covered nine Olympics for Sports Illustrated and Time from 1980 through 2002, and these days, inspired by his kids, has gotten his swim up to a mile.