Chuck Warner, the author and coach, is an old friend. Thoughtful and passionate about the sport, he has studied the details behind what it takes to achieve swimming excellence.
Lesson from Legends: Transformation and Michael Phelps
It’s quiet now. But even in silence the transformation continues. This spring night, and this post Olympic year, sound is hushed. With the passing of a quadrennial and the beginning of a new one, the thunder of Michael Phelps swimming career has subsided.
On this evening in New Jersey, the chorus of the 17-year cicada seems to sleep. But in the morning the neighborhoods will roar with the insect’s synchronized vibration that creates one of the loudest noises produced by nature.
Mother Nature has a way of transforming beings that are human and those that are not. Two examples are the creation of the greatest Olympic athlete in history and the life of a cicada.
The lifecycle of the cicada begins when their fertilized eggs fall to the ground where they will submerge for 13-17 years—a similar number of years it took for Phelps to earn his first Olympic berth. For the cicada eggs their nourishment will be roots. They will feed and they will grow in silence, underground and alone. They will reappear about 2028.
An extraordinary environment at home nourished Michael Phelps‘. It included a comfort zone in world-class swimming established by his older sister Whitney, a spectacular mother, and a devoted coach. The Olympic results may never appear again.
The cicadas create an auditory performance so remarkable that the US Navy is studying them to learn more about sonic potential. Evidently their collective volume comes from a dense population of the flying insects contracting and expanding their rib cage as a mating call. Experts say their ribs contract and expand 3-500 times per second. The sound of their communal urgency rings in our ears each morning, and all day, in cicada country.
Michael Phelps entered the world stage in swimming quietly in 2000 when he earned a position on the US Olympic Team. In Sydney, he and his 17-year old roommate, Aaron Peirsol watched, listened, learned and quietly began planning their return four years later. Even though Aaron earned a silver medal in the 200-meter backstroke, and Michael came home without a medal, it was Phelps that was ready to make the next transformative step, first.
At the US Nationals in Austin, in March of 2001, the former roommates chatted before the competition began. They both had world records in their specialty in mind. In our research for the book ….And Then They Won Gold, Aaron explained that Michael was ready to create that physical reality, but he was not.
“I have thought of my swimming career in two parts,” he told us. “Before the world record, and after the world record.” Aaron went on to explain that in 2001 he wasn’t ready to change his position from being the hunter to becoming the hunted. Evidently Michael was.
Like a cicada that sheds their skin to expose their wings and fly, Michael, took off. His 200-meter butterfly performance of 1:54.92 was his first world record, and there would be another eight to follow, in that event alone.
Some athletes can be described as competitors. LeBron James is one. Not Phelps. He’s a predator. He embodies similar characteristics to some of those terribly rare athletes, such as Michael Jordan or Larry Bird, that eat up their competitors.
Michael Phelps‘ transformation from being a world record holder in a single event in 2001, to becoming an 18-time Olympic gold medal winner, included setting out to beat Ian Thorpe in the 200-meter freestyle. Phelps explanation? “I want to race and beat the best.” By 2004, he was a competitor with the Thorpedo finishing third at the Athens Games. But by 2008, the predator had gobbled up the world in the event ….and in four other individual events as well.
And then the predator chased a record eight gold medals and transformed his self further.
The eight golds in Beijing could only come from being a great teammate–and having them too. Jason Lezak swam one of the greatest relay legs in Olympic history to edge France in the 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay and keep the record haul of goal medals alive. No one seemed more excited at the feat, and about his teammate, than a screaming Michael Phelps. In the 100-meter butterfly all appeared lost, but then there was The Touch–perhaps better expressed as a “miracle finish”–with Michael Cavic. Some say it was Michael’s skill, but there may have been a bit of luck too.
In 2012, the great one transformed into a comeback swimmer, showing that losing and finishing fourth in his first event at the Games, the 400 individual medley, wouldn’t finish him. And he proved he was human when he produced his own mistake in the 200 butterfly to turn a gold medal swim into a silver medal finish.
The transformation of a cicada includes living alone underground for 17 years, then emerging, and within a few weeks, shedding their skin and seeking a mate. Over a four-week period of time the sound begins to quiet, as though a courtship is being consummated while the males move closer to their counterpart gender. After they mate, their eggs will materialize, drop from the trees, be buried, the cicada will die, but the cycle will continue.
The transformation for Michael Phelps started with 16 years of development before emerging in front of the swimming world, then dominating for 11years and becoming a household name. For those of us that believe that some of the people in the world with the strongest character train for life in the sport of swimming, Michael Phelps greatest transition is still taking place. Many swimming fans want to see one more Olympics from Michael, and despite his retirement, he may well give one to the sport and to the world.
But his last transformation is the most important one It’s his step from super-star athlete into a star person when not a super-star athlete. Perhaps his lessons in teamwork will help him reach the esteemed level of citizen as that of an Arthur Ashe. Possibly his development of excellence as an athlete will reappear in a professional way demonstrating some similarities to former swimmer and current doctor extraordinaire, Scott Rodeo. Or maybe his personal metamorphous will deliver the ultimate result: be a parent, or a guiding force to children, like his mother Debbie.
If Michael, and other parents, can rival his mother’s skill then the cycle will continue and the buzzing sound that surrounds greatness will be heard. After a long period of nourishment of family, home and love for swimming, another incredible young athlete may emerge. And possibly in 2028 when the cicadas return…someone will evolve that is capable of approaching the achievements at the Olympic Games of Michael Phelps.
For more information or to order Chuck Warner‘s books Four Champions, One Gold Medal or …And Then They Won Gold, go towww.areteswim.com (access Books * Media) or the American Swimming Coaches Association. You can follow Chuck Warner on [email protected]
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