Shouts From the Stands: 3 Reasons Why Michael Phelps’ Comeback Might Not Be the Greatest Thing Ever

by SwimSwam 46

April 23rd, 2014 News, Opinion

This ‘Shouts from the Stands’ was submitted by Spectrum Sports Performance on behalf of their contributing author Justin Max. Justin is a coach with the Greater Columbus Swim Team of Ohio. Check out more from Spectrum Sports Performance here.

Have your own ‘Shouts from the Stands’ to share? Send it to [email protected], and if it’s interesting, you might see it posted on SwimSwam!

The below is the opinion of the article’s author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of SwimSwam. It sure is a thought-provoking and interesting perspective, though!

Before I even begin, let me preface everything I’m about to write by saying this: I’M A PHELPS FAN. Michael Phelps is the greatest swimmer of all time, the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, and probably the greatest Olympian of all time. The man has done more to promote the growth and expansion of the sport of swimming in this country than the 5 next best athletes combined. It would be impossible for me to even contemplate a guess as to how many youth and adolescent swimmers competing today only gave the sport I love a shot because they saw Phelps on their TV in Sydney, Athens, Beijing, or London. Every week for the past year and a half, I’ve gone to bed saying silent prayers to the swimming gods that he’d have a change of heart and give it one more shot two years from now in Rio. When I heard last Monday that he was “officially” coming out of retirement to swim in Mesa next week, I was giddy as a 15 year-old girl who just got re-tweeted by Ryan Locthe, and spent the rest of the day texting my swimming friends speculating what events he might be gunning for down in Brazil at the next Olympics.

BUT, in the week since the “news” broke that Phelps is jumping back into competition, I feel like I’ve seen about 17,000 blog posts and articles, and God only knows how many tweets and Facebook posts, exclaiming how miraculous it is, how great for the sport it is, and how all of my tedious everyday problems will now instantly be solved (Late sending in your taxes? No worries, Phelps is back!); and I feel maybe we’ve gotten just a tiny bit carried away here. I know it’s tough to think about, and even harder to talk about, but there might, just might, be a few possible drawbacks to having the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time slip on that red white and blue Speedo one more time. Without further ado, I give you my 3 Reasons Why A Michael Phelps Comeback Might NOT Be The Best Thing Ever (please send all hate mail to Eric McGinnis, he’s the one who encouraged me to write this).

1. LEGACY

Nearly every article I’ve read celebrating a potential Michael Phelps comeback has mentioned how absolutely amazing it would be to see him add on to his already record collection of 18 Olympic Golds by tacking on a few down in Rio; and it would be! I would love nothing more than to be sitting on my couch two years from now, watching Phelps win numbers 19, 20, 21, and 22…..but what if he doesn’t? Olympic gold medals are hard to come by, Phelps himself showed that back in London. That’s what made what he was able to do in Beijing so special, so awe-inspiring. What if he comes back and ‘only’ snags a Bronze? What if he can’t do better than 6th? What if, I shudder to even type it, he can’t qualify out of Trials? What if the swimmer who built his incredible legacy by outworking any and all possible competitors every week, every day, every set, and every stroke for his entire life isn’t able to just flip the switch and return to his old, dominating form? As hard as it is for athletes to let go–and for us, their fans, to let them go–there’s a lot to be said for someone going out like John Elway (longtime quarterback of the Denver Broncos, won back-to-back Super Bowls and promptly retired) opposed to Willie Mays (by most accounts one of the top 3 baseball players to ever play, who famously, or perhaps infamously, ended his career by falling down in the outfield while tracking a fly ball during the World Series in one of his last few games ever played, at the age of 42). Michael Phelps has done, and continues to do, so much for the sport. His ‘legacy’ is his (and his alone) to treat as he sees fit, but what does it do for the sport if our icon, our hero, our legend, the one swimmer out there (past or present) who is marketed nation-wide side-by-side with the likes of football, baseball, and basketball stars, goes out there and can’t live up to his own standards?
BUT WAIT! I know what you’re going to say! You’re going to tell me that Phelps has already accomplished so much, achieved such great feats, that anything he does at this point can only be icing on the cake, and can’t possible detract from what he’s already done. How do I know that’s what you’re going to say? Because I’ve already read it, in the 17,000 articles I mentioned above. I’ve seen quotes attributed to Katie Ledecky, Jessica Hardy, and just about anyone else who’s been asked about the comeback saying nothing Phelps does now can possibly affect how he’s remembered. My response? “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” If you’re not quite sure what that means, I’ll explain it the way I tried to for one of my swimmers a few weeks ago: “It’s like the Shakespearean way of saying ‘he who smelt it dealt it’ or ‘she who denied it supplied it’”. What it means, or at least what I want it to mean, is that when enough people are denying the possibility of something happening (in this case, a sub-par comeback from Phelps negatively affecting his legacy) so aggressively, it probably means there’s a good chance of that possibility becoming a reality, and that would be a shame.

2. LESS ATTENTION/PUBLICITY FOR OTHER SWIMMERS

I know this sounds counterintuitive, because Phelps announcing he’ll swim a Grand Prix meet has already caused more of a national media buzz than any other swimming competition besides the Olympics and World Championships. How could his comeback possibly result in less publicity? One way is because NBC, ESPN, and any other mainstream media outlets are only going to spend so much time covering swimming, regardless of who’s competing. Yes, Phelps being there definitely boosts the overall interest level and sheer volume of coverage, but there’s still a definite ceiling in play. Wouldn’t it maybe be better for the future of the sport for more of that Olympic coverage to focus on other, younger, up-and-coming stars? If NBC is willing to spend 10 hours of primetime coverage during a non-Phelps Olympics on swimming, but they’ll spend 20 hours of primetime coverage if Phelps is there, it seems like a no-brainer; 20 hours is better than 10 hours. But what if 15 of those 20 hours are spent exclusively on Phelps and Phelps-related storylines (why he came back, will this really be his last Games, how is Rio different than the others, what does his family think, etc), leaving only 5 hours for the other athletes? Couldn’t I argue that it MIGHT be better overall for the future of our sport to just settle for the 10 hours and have it distributed more evenly amongst the team? I can, and I am. To use an example closer to home; my former college teammates and I have an ongoing group text message we use to stay in touch now that we’re all scattered across the country. The topics vary day-by-day and week-by-week, but overall the subject matter is usually an equal mix of hilarity, profanity, and swimming. The swimming talk is all over the board, ranging from what workouts those of us still training have done, to what practices those of us coaching are going to try, to who’s posted what times recently on the national and international stages. You know what the topic has been since last Monday morning? Phelps, and not much time for anything else. I know they say “there’s no such thing as bad press”, but if the increased press, attention, and publicity is so exclusively focused on one individual, does it even count as press for the sport as a whole? By the way, while I’m on this note, please don’t try and tell me how the Mesa Grand Prix selling out is an irrefutable sign of what a difference a Phelps comeback makes to the marketing of the sport as a whole. The people who bought those tickets are just like me, swim junkies who would probably throw down $100 to watch Michael Phelps play a game of Marco Polo at his local rec pool, not mainstream Arizona sports fans who want to see what swimming’s all about.

3. BURN-OUT ON THE SAME STORYLINE

Anyone familiar with swimming, whether they’re an athlete, coach, parent, or fan, is familiar with the dreaded B-word, ‘Burn-out’; but it can apply to more than just teenagers throwing down miles upon miles of yardage-based aerobic freestyle sets. It can apply to just about anything, including the coverage of a sport that focuses so intently on a single athlete. Isn’t it possible that some viewers/fans won’t respond to Michael Phelps being the centerpiece of NBC’s swimming coverage for the 4th Games in a row? I’ve talked to a lot of people over the past few days on this topic, and they all (swimmers and non-swimmers alike) seem to have gone through a pretty similar arc of interest on the coverage of Phelps at the last few Olympics that goes something like this:

Sydney-That kid’s only 15? RESPECT!

Athens-It’s cool to see this young kid grow up and challenge returning powers like Ian Thorpe. GO U-S-A!

Beijing-How awesome is it to see him really establish himself as the greatest of all time? ‘MURICA!

London-This is starting to get a little stale, but it’s “Michael’s last swim meet ever”, I guess I should be into that. GO….PHELPS!

What’s that arc of interest going to look like in two years during another Games full of Phelps-centric coverage? How are Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines even going to try and present this one to viewers: “Michael’s last swim meet ever…No, no, for real this time”? Now, I’ll openly admit that I have nothing but conjecture and unreliable anecdotal evidence to support this theory, but isn’t it at least something to consider and discuss? Isn’t it possible that some viewers might flip on the TV, tune in to NBC, see that it’s “that Phelps guy again”, and decide that maybe this might be the time to step away and walk the dog before gymnastics comes back on? We all know that swimming really only attracts any sort of national attention through/during the Olympics, and a big reason why is because the general populous finds it a little repetitive and monotonous. Even during the Olympics, NBC has to constantly try and explain the differences between the strokes/events and explain what makes each race unique. Don’t we as a sport need to be wary of having the same Phelps-finale storylines we had back in London contribute even further to that perceived sense of repetition and monotony? I think maybe we do, at least a little.

Now, like I said to start this out, don’t get me wrong–I’M A PHELPS FAN. I’m incredibly pumped to see him back in action next week, and to see what he can do over the next 2-plus years. I just think there are two sides to every coin, and the swimming community, in its general ecstasy at Phelps’ return, may be overlooking some of the possible drawbacks here that might, might, MIGHT make a Michael Phelps comeback NOT the best thing ever.

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Swimfan

This article is terrible. Michael phelps is the reason swimming has grown so much and become what it is now. “Not making trials” is absurd to even consider. He is the greatest of all time and that is an understatement. He has the 2nd fastest 100 free of all time in the US and he never trained sprint free. I believe he will flirt with the 100 free world record and get close to his 100 fly world record.

SamH

I don’t think so. This article raises some great points that cannot be shrugged off. There is plenty of evidence showing that people are getting faster because people’s ideas of what is fast are changing. Michael Phelps cannot keep getting faster and we know that because he hasnt had a personal best time since 2008/2009.
Another point I really agree with is the hogging the lime light. There are a lot of fantastic swimmers out there not getting credit for being amazing, breaking huge barriers (kevin cordes 100/200 breast chase kalisz 400IM).
I am excited for Phelps coming back but like the author of the article, I am hesitant about it.

mcgillrocks

2011 Worlds 200 IM final- 1:54.16 lifetime best time

SamH

Ok yes but that was a personal best by what, a tenth? I guess I meant that he isnt going to continue with ridiculous time drops like 2004 400IM 4:09 (?) To that insane 4:03 in 2008.

Billabong

His 100m free should be good enough to make the USA relay team which is no mean feat. Potentially a gold for that race. 200 free? Could make the relay, but maybe only a slot in the heats. Another gold. Chad Le Clos will crush him in the 200 fly if he swims it. He has a better chance in the 100 fly, so should get at medal there. All of these projections are way better than Ian Thorpe who was out for a lot longer, but was also 28 when he tried it. He didn’t even get close to making the Aussie team, despite getting a large slug of their funding allocated to him. He was not that popular… Read more »

aswimfan

There is a huge difference between Thorpe’s retirement and Phelps’. Thorpe had retired for more than 5 years and lived sedentary live (you can easily find photos of him on the Internet where he looked like a whale) before announcing come back (where he was looking mightily chubby), while Phelps only took at most one year leave from regular training while still keeping his body super fit.

Phelps come back will be quite successful (of course nothing to compare to his previous achievements) and it will be good for the sports.

Steve Nolan

Re:point #1 – Joe Montana on the Chiefs. Emmitt Smith on the Cardinals. Hell, Mark Spitz trying to qualify for the Olympics in 1992. People won’t remember this if he sucks. Your “hardcore” fans will – those that comment on SwimSwam articles, for instance – but the sporting public at large won’t. It’s a low risk, high upside move.

Re:point #3 – This I can buy, had the same kind of feelings. Don’t want him to turn into Brett Favre here.

Fuddyduddy

I’ll admit, I’ve been tired of all the Phelps hype for a while. I really hope he comes back with an attitude of gratitude. I got really tired of him winning races by a huge margin then complaining in post-race interviews about being “out of shape” because he was unhappy with the time. Just seems disrespectful to the other swimmers. I do enjoy seeing new faces come up in the ranks and get the attention they deserve rather than it all going to Phelps. My hope his he comes back with renewed energy and a more positive outlook and we see some great races between him and the next generation.

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