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Beginnings: The Breakthrough Moment

Michael Phelps, Swimmer

“I was within half a second of medaling.”

Michael Phelps and his sister in 2000.  

I have two older sisters — I’m the youngest of three. And one of my sisters was first in the nation, third in the world, at 14. She could have made the Olympic team but didn’t, because of an injury. I mean, she was devastated. A bulging and herniated disk in her neck and her back put her out of the sport, but she fought through a lot of pain to get back to where she wanted to be — to make the Olympic trials and swim at the same Olympic trials as me. To at least compete with me.

I had been a kid who was playing baseball, lacrosse, soccer, swimming — anything you could possibly do sports-wise, I was doing it. When I was 11 years old, I fell in love with the sport and was told that I could potentially be an Olympian. Because of my sister, I had kind of grown up watching the Olympics and paying attention to what was going on. Because of my sister, I knew who some of the great swimmers were, and I had the chance to meet some of them and just kind of be around them. And my sister — she would go to these meets and she would get me their autographs.

My sister and I were both scheduled to swim at trials in 2000. I swam in the trials, but she ended up pulling out because of her back. She was the first one, when I got out of the water, that I hugged. That was just so special and meaningful for me — just sort of always looking up to what she did and what she was doing, and just her being there showing me the support that she showed me.

I can look back at my life now and realize that my life wasn’t the normal one for a 15-year-old boy or for an 11-year-old boy, and I kind of can see now how I essentially lived in a bubble for a long time. And it’s because it’s what I had to do. To be able to accomplish the goals and the dreams that I wanted, I had to do things that kids my age weren’t doing.

For example, high school. I wasn’t a normal high-school kid. I wasn’t the kid who was going out with their friends on the weekends and sort of doing this or doing that. I was the kid that was in bed, waking up, getting up for early-morning workout because I knew I had to be ready to perform. I knew I had to be rested to be able to put in a good workout, to be able to continue to work toward the goals that I had. And at that time, you know, for me, once I made my first Olympics, yeah, sure, it was great, I was fifth, that’s a pretty big accomplishment. But I didn’t want it. I wanted more. I was within half a second of medaling — it was literally, if I would have taken it out a little bit faster, maybe I would have had a chance.

But it was my first time out of the country, it was my first national-team trip. I didn’t even have my suit tied when I went up to swim. I went to the finals of the 200 fly and I took my roommate’s credential instead of taking mine — that’s not really something that’s good to do. It pushes me back — I’m later than I’m supposed to be for the race. So I didn’t really put myself in the best position to be able to perform at my peak — I had a few things like that that didn’t go as planned. But once I went through that, I was kind of like, “Well, you know, maybe I have the chance to make it again.” And four years down the road, now we have the whole Mark Spitz thing — you know, everyone was comparing me to Mark Spitz. But for me — I still say this a lot — it was never about beating Mark Spitz. It never was. It was about becoming the first Michael Phelps, not the second Mark Spitz. And that’s truly what I always dreamt of as a kid. I dreamt of doing something that no one had ever done before. I always say, if you can dream it, then you can accomplish really anything you put your mind to. And the biggest thing is just trying to dare somebody to even dream that big. Growing up, there’s a reason I swam five straight years and didn’t take a single day off. There are reasons why I swam every holiday, every Christmas, every birthday. I was trying to be as prepared as I could, and I tried to see what I could really do and what my potential was. I just really did kind of whatever it took. You know my coach was the kind of person who would say, “Jump!” and I would say, “How high?”

The best race I ever swam was probably in 2008. My 200 free that year is probably my best race I’ve ever had in my life. The start was perfect, the turns were perfect, my stroke was the best my stroke has ever been. Like efficient-wise, technique-wise, everything. It was just absolutely perfect. And I think that was because of all the training that I put in and all of the little small things that I did right. And that’s something still today that I talk about, that the most important thing in the sport is doing all the little tiny things right, and doing them right when you don’t always want to do them.

But once we got through 2008, it was, “Okay, now what?” I always said to myself, when I saw a bunch of swimmers who were swimming in their 30s, “God, that’s so old. I never want to do that.” I came back for one more. But I really had very little desire to continue doing what I was doing. I just felt like I had to keep going. Something that I guess I really found out recently was — I guess within the last year — was I only saw myself as a swimmer. That’s it. Nothing else. I had no self-worth, no self-love; I was just like, “Yeah, I’m just a swimmer, I don’t have anything else.”

That was really when I found sort of the passion again — right when I came back out of retirement, I think I started seeing it then, but over the last year, I really found that little kid inside of me that had that passion and had that excitement level that he once had. And I think that was just one of the coolest experiences for me to feel, with everything that I’ve been through over the past year, just sort of been in the darkest places that you could possibly find yourself, to being back into this amazing world where everything that you dreamt of is happening again. And I mean I’m just happy as can be right now and I am loving life again. I think that’s something that’s maybe cool for me to feel and to go through and just enjoy myself again. And now I’m 30 years old and swimming almost faster than I ever have before.