The Real Reason Michael Phelps Is Coming Back

Michael Phelps.

The big swimming news is Michael Phelps’s planned return to competition later this April. The news reports have been celebratory, but with more than a hint of puzzlement: Why is Phelps coming back? For example, Christopher Clarey, writes in The New York Times:

It should be and is totally up to Phelps whether he wants to risk further denting his aura of invincibility. He has tried golf and failed (so far) to make Tiger Woods or Bubba Watson nervous. He presumably has had downtime and free time aplenty.

In the pool, he has very little, if anything, left to prove, which might not be best in a sport where the training is arduous and repetitive enough to require extreme motivation.

Clarey is perplexed: Swimming is miserable miserable MISERABLE! Only the extremely motivated would train like Phelps. Why would he put himself through more hell, risking his reputation? Of course, it’s totally up to him, but why?

I find this perspective on Phelps’s return strange. First, Michael Phelps is not invincible, and no one who watched the last Olympics thinks he is (he took fourth in the 400 IM; he won silver in the 200 butterfly). More important, I’m 99% sure why Phelps is coming back, and it has nothing to do with proving anything: he likes to swim.

Seriously, the man likes to swim. He enjoys practice. Nobody swims eight miles a day, six days a week out of sheer stubbornness; he does it because he likes doing it.

How do I know? I swam seven miles last Friday, and I liked it. It didn’t require “extreme motivation” (unless you count promising myself a hamburger and fries afterward a form of “extreme motivation”). I am reminded again of a passage from Daniel Chambliss’s article “The Mundanity of Excellence,” describing Olympic-level swimmers: “What others see as boring–swimming back and forth over a black line for two hours, say–they find peaceful, even meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic. . . . It is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it.” You don’t have to be a top athlete to feel this way. Look, I’m a middle-aged woman with a full-time job and two children. Taking four hours on a Friday to swim seven miles is not a sacrifice; it is an indulgence.

It’s not enough to want to race. It’s not enough to want to win. To swim that much, you have to love the swimming. And what Clarey calls “arduous and repetitive,” others call fun. ABC News quotes coach Bill Bowman on Phelps’s return to the sport:

I think he’s just really enjoying it. He enjoys the training and being physically fit. He just kind of wants to see where he’s at. It’s more really for fun. It’s been nice for me to see him swim just for the joy of it really.

There’s only one good reason to swim: for the joy of it. I hope Michael Phelps has as much fun on his comeback, however long it lasts, as I’m having getting ready for the ten mile swim.

5 thoughts on “The Real Reason Michael Phelps Is Coming Back

  1. I’ll be interested to see how this goes. I love swimming too, but one of the challenges of “coming back” as a competitor is the inevitable change that happens to the body over time, whether from age, injury, illness, or any of the other things life throws at you. It is one thing to swim again, and another to compete again. Competing at a high level as a masters swimmer in my 30s was exciting because I had never been a truly elite swimmer as a kid or young adult. I was still improving. Coming back after having reached a peak is another matter, and for serious competitors, it can be a different kind of challenge.

  2. I think you’re right; he’s going to have to think about himself and what he’s doing differently. He is never going to be the Michael Phelps of 2008. But he’s in good shape, relatively injury-free; if he stays healthy and focuses on one or two events (instead of eight), he could medal in 2016. He has to enjoy what he can do instead of dwelling on what he used to do.

    I read Phelps’s “autobiography,” which came out after the 2008 Olympics. I can’t really recommend it, but one interesting thing about it was the way he talked about wanting to promote swimming in the US, make it more recognized and more attractive to young athletes the way it is in Australia. If he is motivated by the desire to promote the sport, his presence on the 2016 Olympic team (if he gets that far) as the grand old man of US swimming could be a great boost too.

  3. I’m sure he needed his break and I’m glad he took it to try other things. He should be able to do whatever makes him happy – and I don’t think he’d return if swimming if it didn’t!

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