Monday, August 18, 2008

The (Other) Great One

What can I say that hasn't already been said about Michael Phelps? The kid's a fish, and I say kid because he's only 23. London 2012 is almost a certainty for him, barring injury of course, Chicago 2016 is in his sights as well, which would put him at age 31. Not that I'm booking tickets already, but Phelps is amazing and has a lot left in the tank, apparently. Everyone knew Phelps was something special when he jumped in the pool for his first Olympic Games in 2000. The Baltimore Bullet set his first World Record in the 400 IM with a time of 4:08.26, capturing the Gold Medal. He went on to post two new World Records, three Olympic Records, two American Records, and leaving Athens with six Gold's. He had already come a long way since Sydney in 2000, where he finished 5th in the 200 butterfly. By now, everyone knows how he did in Beijing, eight Gold Medals along with seven World Records. Phelps' dominance extends far beyond the realm of Olympic Swimming. The 2000, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2007 Swimming World Championships also belonged to Phelps, as well as the 2002 and 2006 Pan Pacific Championships. In the World Championships, he finished first 16 times, second three times, setting 13 World Records and two American Records thus far in his World Championship career. In his two Pan Pacific Championships, Phelps finished first eight times, second three times, and also set four World Records.

With Phelps passing Mark Spitz's previous record of seven gold medals in dramatic fashion, many people wonder where Phelps' place in history will be. I must admit I'm a little biased being a swimmer myself, but I think history will be favorable to Phelps. Believe me, swimming nine days in a row is no easy feat—most days multiple times a day—and eight of the nine days being finals is just an incredible physical, and mental, feat. Phelps swam 1,500 meters in finals alone this Olympics, and upwards of two miles total, which really speaks to his physical strength and ability. Swimming, in my opinion, takes all the ability it does to say, play hockey. Swimming takes physical strength (believe it or not, water is heavy), incredible endurance, as well as remarkable mental toughness and determination. In that sense, swimming is every bit as much a sport as Baseball, Basketball, Soccer, Football, or Hockey.

That said, I think Phelps has to be in the same sentence as Wayne Gretzky, Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, and the greats of sport. What Michael Phelps did no one has done in the history of the sport. In fact, only one Olympian, Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina, has more total medals than Phelps. In fact, a New York Times article cited that, if Michael Phelps was a country, he would rank fourth in gold medals, behind China, Team USA, and Germany, and 14h in total medals. He's been honored with awards too numerous to mention, but including USOC and USSA Athlete of the Year, four- time World Swimmer of the Year, as well as being a six- time American Swimmer of the Year. There are not many athletes that can say they were the best in their sport six times in a row.

I was watching Sports Center the other day, the morning after Phelps won his eighth Gold, and they were talking about it, and used all the clichés that sports media minds use while not really saying anything. They said it was a great feat, and good for the sport, but they also said something that really caught me off guard: they said "nobody's going to remember Phelps in 2o years." Come on, maybe in major sports circles, but if you actually pay attention, you'd for sure know who he is. Jesus, give the man some respect, he just did something most people couldn't even dream of doing. So much for being nonpartisan, ESPN; I think that quote reinforces the idea that they only care about Basketball and Football, and that's the sad reality. Everyone remembers what Mary Lou Retton did in 1984, and that was 24 years ago; I still have an autographed Wheaties box with the 1984 Team USA gymnastics team on it. Phelps may well end up being more popular then Retton, only time will tell.