Michael Phelps has qualified for the Rio Olympics 2016. After his win in the 200-metre butterfly stroke category at the trials held at the CenturyLink Centre in Omaha, Phelps will represent the U.S.A. for a record fifth time at the Olympics.
For the most medalled Olympian of all time, swimming to beat the odds at the age of 31 has been the culmination of a journey of a lifetime.
Today when you watch Michael Phelps streak through the water, it convinces you that you are witnessing something great — that you too could perhaps streak through to what counts as a victory to you.
His splits are not clinical, the extra half-stroke that he had to put in to reach the wall is not ideal, but you know that in spite of freak losses to the likes of Chad le Clos, the lonesome Phelps immersed in the beats of his headphones will emerge as the hero of the tale.
As his seven-week old son, Boomer Robert, slept in the arms of Phelps’s fiancée, Nicole Johnson, the Michael who hugged his family and high-fived eager fans after winning the berth to Rio de Janeiro was a changed man from the boy of 15 who had qualified for the 2000 Olympics at Athens.
After retiring with his six medal haul at the 2012 London Olympics, Michael Phelps has been faced with challenges that range from being caught for drunken driving to fighting a battle with his own sense of worth and esteem.
But the same Michael Phelps has emerged out of the DUIs, the journeys into rehab and essayed a return to the waters within a time of 1:54.84 — the time that it took for him to swim the 200 meters.
The “Baltimore Bullet,” with his trusted coach, Bob Bowman, by his proverbial side and his enthusiastic mother in the stands, Michael Phelps was a picture of peace as he emerged from the pool.
With his palm held up to indicate “five” — the number of Olympics he will have competed in and the most for any American male swimmer — he fielded questions from reporters after presenting a shark toy to his baby son.
What Phelps said right after his win, as reported by the Baltimore Sun, revealed not just the emotions of an inspiring athlete, but also the struggles involved with being the best at something.
“I think that means the most to me. With everything that’s happened to me, sort of being able to come back, that was probably harder than any swim I’ve had in my life. … Just being able to finish how I want to is so important to me.”
In a remarkable essay on ESPN, feature writer Wayne Drehs wrote on the Michael behind the medals and the truly uphill road to Rio that Phelps has had to climb in the two years between hitting the waters again in 2014 and now.
With a career that began when he was 11 years old and amidst all the rigours of trainings and trials that earned him the most number of gold medals than any other Olympians, Phelps had a fraught relationship with his father, a less-than-perfect equation with his coach and a sense of fading self-worth.
“I had no self-esteem,” Phelps said to Drehs, in the essay. “No self-worth. I thought the world would just be better off without me. I figured that was the best thing to do — just end my life.”
However, with the sweet responsibilities of fatherhood and the steady support that comes from looking inward, Phelps is now on the way to making history once again.
Keeping him company on Michael Phelps’ flight to Rio will be his friends and swimmers Allison Schmitt and Ryan Lochte, who along with Katie Ledecky, Missy Franklin, Leah Smith, Tom Shields and Chase Kalisz will represent the US swimming contingent at the Olympics.
Writers of sports years later will perhaps note how Michael Phelps sat out the 100-metre freestyle race at the Omaha trials in order to save up his strength for the 200-metre, taking a gamble on his chances. But they will also note how poetic it made his victory. As noted by the Baltimore Sun, it was, after all, the 200-metre that sealed Michael Phelps’ very first qualification to the Olympics, 16 years ago.