Michael Phelps will return in 2020

Sorry, New York Times. But he'll be back ...

Sorry, New York Times. But he’ll be back …

Much has been made of Michael Phelps’ amazing Olympic run, and with good reason. A swimmer doesn’t win 743,322 medals and not garner some headlines.

Yet what has struck me as odd/weird/unfortunate is the media’s repeated assertion that these Rio Games are Phelps’ final Olympics. It’s been said over and over and over again, and reminds one of the ol’ saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Or, put different, if you don’t think Michael Phelps will try and swim again in 2020, you’re on crack.

Why am I so certain? Because we’ve all seen this one before. With boxers. With gymnasts. With baseball players. With Brett Favre. With swimmers. Sure, walking away on top seems incredibly appealing at the time. So does the idea of gaining some weight; of staying out of the pool; of eating burgers and drinking beers and living a normal life.

But it rarely lasts.

Micheal Phelps is 31. He has no college degree, and no real apparent skills outside the pool. Yes, he’s generated millions in endorsements, but generating millions in endorsements does not a fulfilling life make. Should he retire now, his life will likely either be one of working as a coach, or traveling the country and giving motivational speeches. Both, well, suck.

Actually, scratch that. Coaching can be fulfilling, if you aspire to help others excel. This, however, is rarely a life choice made by superstars. It’s a cliche, but the best managers and coaches are former jocks who struggled to make it. From Tony La Russa to Buck Showalter to Gary Kubiak to Steve Kerr, the elite sideline gurus were role players and scrubs. They had to scuffle to survive. They understand the tricks, the nuggets, the grime and the grind. Phelps, a la men like Ted Williams and Magic Johnson, is gifted and gilded. How can he relate with the non-blessed?

Motivational speaking, meanwhile, is hell on earth. Yes, the money is good. But try telling the story of that race against Ryan Lochte for the 10th time … the 50th time … the 100th  time … the 1,000th time … the 100,000th time. There’s a line from the film “Everybody’s All-American” that I’ve long remembered. The old football player, feeling helpless and pathetic, cries to his wife, “I can’t even remember the stories I’m telling any longer. Did they happen to me, or are they just stories I’m making up?” Such is the life of the speaker. The dental convention. The Little League coaches. The hedge fund banquet. Over and over and over and over …

No, Michael Phelps won’t coach, and he won’t speak. He’ll take some time off, then realize 35—while old—isn’t ancient. He’ll hear the Olympic anthem, smell the chlorine, read about the up and comers … and decide his time isn’t over.

He’ll be back.

3 thoughts on “Michael Phelps will return in 2020”

  1. We’ll see. Father Time is undefeated. Would hate to see Phelps in 4 years struggling to win bronze. Maybe he will seek other opportunities in life. Hope so.

  2. Well, can’t fault him for that. Even if he HAD a better education and better-developed job skills, they would almost surely not give him greater personal satisfaction than the thrill of competition and the exhilaration of winning at the highest level.

    We have built up a fable that a person’s happiness is secure forever if he “goes out on top.” I call BS. Sure, the person’s greatness is cemented in our collective memory, for whatever that’s worth; but the greats aren’t doing what they do just to satisfy us. Going out on top at age 31, or 35, or 38 or whatever, still leaves most people 30-50 years to live life with some kind of second-best job satisfaction, and maybe worse than second-best. That’s a long time to be doing something that can’t compare to the highest of highs.

    I have no beef with any great athlete clawing and scratching to stay in an occupation that nothing else in his life will ever match. What’s that trope from John Mellencamp, “. . . life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone”?

Leave a Reply