Twenty-one gold medals.
As of Tuesday night, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps had received 21 gold medals in his amazing, awe-inspiring career, and still had an opportunity to add to that collection before these Games were over, as he still had three more events to swim.
Think about that for a minute. Rinse the words around in your mouth and focus on the fact that one man has received 21 gold medals, and 25 total medals during his remarkable swim through history. To earn an invitation to Olympic trials is an honor not granted to many in this land — a statistical improbability akin to getting struck by lightning while riding a monkey through the Everglades or getting through this column every week without feeling your breakfast make a reappearance in the back of your throat (Editor’s Note: No math was used in this statistical analysis. Nor was logic. It was just a sad, middle-aged man trying to make a point).
If you are fortunate and talented enough to make it to Olympic trials, the odds of actually making it on to the team with the giant “USA” on the front of their uniforms is approximately the same as a reality TV star earning the nomination of one of our major political parties to...
But I digress. And I’m done with doing statistical comparisons, for now.
So, you’ve beaten the odds and been invited to Olympic trials, and then you up the ante by actually making the team. Your next step in the swimming events is to advance past the preliminary heats and make it to the semifinals — competing against the very best the world has to offer. In a sport that often comes down to mere hundredths of a second, one bad turn, slow start or mistimed stroke and you’re out. Olympic dream dashed.
But you push through. You persevere and find yourself advancing out of the semifinals and on to the finals. And then, well, all eyes are on you. If you’re an American athlete, the announcers focus all their attention on your form, your state of mind, your chances for capturing a medal. The graphics on the screen highlight which lane you are in, and the cameras attach themselves to your family and friends in the stands.
The pressure has to be all-consuming, like riding a monkey through the Everglades while...
Sorry. I got caught up in the moment.
But somehow you manage to keep it together. You dig deep inside yourself and corral your focus into this one exact moment in time. Those early-morning swims that your exhausted mother drove you to, or those missed proms because you were at a meet three states away or the injuries and tired muscles you collected through years of arduous training — none of that matters. This is it. You can’t help but look at the competitors to your left and right, knowing that each and every one of them has a lifetime of stacking up blue ribbons, and have shown up with the same dreams of wearing a medal that you have.
You get yourself up on the block, shake those legs and arms one last time to try to be as loose as possible and await the starter’s command. It’s at this point when some competitors lose. They tighten up. They panic. They start overthinking things.
But you are ready. You hear the command to start and your body takes over before your mind. You hit the water and swim. The practice has made this part of the race — the actual race, itself — seem almost routine. You hit the wall in perfect stride, turn and head back the way you came. Then you do the same again. You’re aware of where the people on either side of you are, and as you do your final turn for the home stretch you know that it all has come down to this moment.
And this moment is not what practice prepared you for, as much as it is a test of will. All those miles you stacked up jogging or lifting weights give you the physical tools you need to accomplish your goal, but all your competitors have put in the work, too. At this point it’s about intestinal fortitude, guts and courage. You dig even deeper.
You tap the wall, spin around to see the leader board and discover you won. You took down the whole thing and got yourself a gold medal. All the cameras are pointed directly into your face as you try to catch your breath and you scan the crowd for your family and friends. Every last second that you put into this, every dream and fantasy that ever played out in your head, it all culminates in this one moment that your grandkids will one day be sharing with their grandkids, beaming with pride.
Michael Phelps has done this 21 times.
There is no doubt that he was blessed from the start with fantastic genes that could make him even consider a lifetime dedicated to this craft. And he obviously had parents that sacrificed of themselves to get him where he needed to go, fed him what he needed to be fed and encouraged him when he needed encouragement. Along the way there have been coaches and mentors and friends who pushed and prodded him, and hugged and nurtured him. He would not have gotten where he is without that kind of support and natural genetics.
But most of these competitors he has faced over the last 16 years of Olympic appearances have held these same advantages in life. And Phelps has persevered — 21 times as a gold-medal winner, and 25 total times on the medal podium.
That took heart. And we are all fortunate to have watched it.