I have the absolute utmost respect and admiration for you. Of course, just like millions of other people, I have found your success in the swimming pool to be superhuman, unbelievably remarkable, and your ability to conquer feats that no other individual has accomplished. This past week, you earned yourself a record-breaking career with 23 Olympic gold medals. That, in itself, has placed you on an elite pedestal in sports; one of the greatest athletes of all time. But, my appreciation goes far beyond just your race times, medal counts, and victories; and that is what you have demonstrated as a human being, athlete, fiancé, and now father.
It is so easy for fans and spectators to judge, criticize, hate, and scrutinize a superior athlete like yourself. People are always looking for reasons to take away the glory from such a high profile, successful being. In 2014, USA Swimming made it public that you were to be suspended for six months for violating the organization’s code of conduct. You were arrested for driving under the influence. There is no question this act was illegal, and should’ve resulted in significant consequences. And, while I’m not excusing it, what people don’t realize is the amount of pressure, control, and discipline you exhibit on a daily basis to be the one of the greatest athletes of all time. The focus, determination, and commitment you must demonstrate is something very few people could ever conceive.
I, personally, went through the U.S. Soccer system as a youth player. I had the opportunity to compete at a National Camp at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, CA. I was one step away from making it to the top of my age group; and I failed. I lacked something that you display better than anyone else I have watched; composure and confidence under pressure. I folded. Your DUI may have been a setback, an effect of this stressful lifestyle, but you did something that people struggle to applaud you for; you not only bounced back, but you returned a stronger, smarter, and healthier swimmer and individual.
Fighting back from adversity was, by far, the most challenging task I ever faced. I happened to have developed a significant eating disorder as a college athlete. After receiving a full-ride scholarship to Michigan State University, your arch rival, I viewed my role as a job and responsibility. I believed the university was investing in me monetarily, and, as a result, I needed to bring success. The pressure I placed on myself was so immense. I sought out to be the most fit I could be, losing weight, and then not knowing how to stop. I became sick, weak, and feeble; needing intensive treatment to enable me to recover. Mine was on a much smaller scale, and the shame I felt was vast. To have had to overcome this defeat, and prove myself again to my family, teammates, and coaches was overwhelming. I witnessed you do this on a world stage, return, and dominate your sport: a feat that, again, makes you one of the most impressive and notable athletes and individuals ever.
Michael, you have had a target on your back because of all the success you have exhibited in the pool. Many have no idea the challenge that has been presented to you to show up for a meet or race with every other competitor set out in an attempt to beat you. It is known that being an underdog is less stressful, knowing one has nothing to lose, but everything to gain. But, you, as the leader in the sport have not only shown up to race your best, but you have competed against everyone else’s personal best, too–and have continued to be victorious. Now, that is extraordinary.
I moved from Michigan to Baltimore, Maryland in 2007. Being in sports, and beginning my coaching career at Towson University, I have had the honor of feeling connected to you over the years. Also, I had the opportunity to watch you train at Loyola University’s pool, during our women’s soccer team sessions in the pool. And, finally, I ran into you at Canton Hot Bagels years ago. I was there with my brother and his friends, who all graduated from University of Michigan, and when they shouted, “Go Blue!” you grinned and shouted the same back.
I now have two little boys and am expecting my third. My world of sports and family never meshed together; in fact, they collided. I didn’t believe I had the ability to do both; coach soccer and raise children. So, when my first son was born almost five years ago, I turned down a job opportunity that I always dreamed of being offered to me: a Division I head coaching job, which happened to be from UMBC. I made a decision to devote my life and time to my family, feeling inadequate to balance both. You, on the other hand, just competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics, which people can’t fathom the amount of hours, days, and years you spent training, with a newborn in tote. Now, Michael, that is impressive. That is something people should be raving about, writing about, and airing. That is an accomplishment, in my opinion, far greater than the medals placed around your neck. You are a father to a baby, and you just displayed the unique ability to follow your dreams, and set an unbelievable example for this child you have created, and will continue to grow, teach, nurture, and love.
I have been inspired by athletes, particularly yourself, who have publicized personal struggles in hopes to help others. I am on a new path; to write and public speak about my downfall and experiences that led to it. My wish is that by sharing the details of my story and eating disorder, I will educate, inspire, and help others battling the same feelings and behaviors to fight back, and get help. In turn, lives will hopefully be saved.
Michael Phelps, those are some of the many reasons I admire, respect, and honor you as one of the best of all time. Thank you for your example of being human; fighting through adversity, setting records, and providing hope to so many people out there. You are a true role model.
I hope to cross paths again soon.