I had to think about this about this one for a minute.
Now, don't get me wrong, I love the Olympics. I find myself getting geeked up for any big sporting spectacles, and there is nothing bigger than the Olympics in that regard. There is a little bit of everything. I get to watch the sport I love the most (basketball), the collection of track and field events I am particularly close to (having ran track as a high schooler then coached it later on), as well as the kinds of events that I wouldn't ever think about otherwise.
One of those is swimming. I'm not a strong swimmer. That is probably an overstatement. Despite having what could generously be called a "swimmer's body" -- i.e. long and lean -- or more derisively identified by any number of painful nicknames that I've heard over the years (sticks, bean-pole, etc,), I have almost no comfort or ability in the water. I can tread water for about a minute before getting tired, and I have a way of productively flailing in the water that will slowly move me from one place to another with the maximum of energy exerted.
I think that is why I gravitate toward Olympic swimming more than anything else. The Olympics are about standing in awe of athletes who are among the best in the world at physical challenges that you or I can only dream of even completing without keeling over.
Then there is Michael Phelps. When I was still an undergrad at Michigan he was training there. Not really part of the school or the swim team, but just around. I heard a bunch of "Michael Phelps stories" which aren't really appropriate to retell in a public forum like this, and many of which I have forgotten so many key details to that they might as well be Michael Phelps Myths or Legends.
Anyway, Phelps is not only the greatest swimmer to ever walk the face of the earth (sorry Mark Spitz), but we existed in roughly the same place at the same time for a period of our youth. The circumstances were wildly different, but the mind is funny like that. It can dig up connections.
When Phelps swam in the 2008 Olympics I had moved on to a house in East Lansing, but I watched as much of the Olympics as I could (I was only marginally employed at the time, having just graduated in the months before). There, on a couch in East Lansing, probably a few beers deep, I watched Michael Phelps nearly fall short in his quest for an unprecedented eight gold medals. Almost.
Phelps touched the wall first. Not by much, but by enough.
I still can't swim worth a damn, but it doesn't matter. Michael Phelps swims for me. He swims for all of us. His achievement is one that all human-kind can cherish and appreciate. A man mastering the physical world, pushing it to the very limit. Touching the wall first.
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