(Originally published in a shorter form on Aug. 13, 2012)
There are tons of people I’ll remember from these Games – but I have to write about the man who’s made the Olympics be more than just great television to me over the past 12 years.
When Michael Phelps swam in his first Olympics in Sydney in 2000, I was a sophomore at Calvin. I proudly pointed out the 15-year-old to my floormates as we watched him on TV and mentioned we attended the same high school (although not at the same time). He was the youngest male swimmer to make the Olympic team in 68 years, and the announcers couldn’t believe it. They were probably even more surprised when he finished fifth in his only event.
Four years later, I was working at my first job in Oneonta when the Athens Olympics rolled around. I wrote a column for The Daily Star explaining why everyone should pay attention to this guy, and I planned my summer vacation that year around the Games so I could be home in Baltimore to watch them with my family. We were not disappointed: Six gold medals and two bronze — and a new star was on the map!
Four years later, I was finishing up grad school in Chicago, enjoying watching the excitement of the students from China who lived in my apartment building as their country hosted the Olympics for the first time. Phelps was aiming for a record-breaking eight gold medals in eight events. And, of course, he did it – and with plenty of drama. (Even people who knew nothing about swimming were amazed by the American men’s 4×100 relay team fighting back to beat France, and the one-one-hundredth of a second win over Serbia’s Milorad Cavic in the 100m butterfly.) I wrote another column for The Daily Star, marveling at how “Phelps Phrenzy” had spread worldwide. (And I even went to the “Phelpstival” parade in Towson and dressed up as him for Halloween.)
Four years later, I’m in D.C., closer to where it all began, in yet another chapter in my life, even more appreciative of the mental pressure Olympic athletes go through thanks to my “Jeopardy!” experience — and Phelps says he’s retiring. (And I mentioned him during my “Hometown Howdy” for “Jeopardy!”)
These Games weren’t quite as successful for Phelps if you go just by the number of events (seven) and medals (six, including two surprise silvers to complete his collection). But, when you add up all the medals (22!!!! And 18 gold!!!) and if you consider what he’s done for his sport, for the Olympics, for the U.S., for Baltimore and Towson, for fellow middle-class public school kids like me, then these Games, and his three previous ones, were more than successful.
I think it’s virtually impossible to compare Olympians and say Phelps is the greatest of all time — after all, he’s had many more opportunities to win medals than athletes in team sports (like, say, Lisa Leslie, who also competed in four Olympics and won gold each time with the U.S. women’s basketball team). But he’s set a benchmark that will be very, very difficult to surpass.
Four years from now, I’ll be watching the Rio Olympics from somewhere, with someone else, and it will be very strange not to see Michael swimming (yes, I do think he’s serious about retirement). We’ll all find other athletes to cheer for, but I will still miss him terribly.