Every time Michael Phelps dove into our living rooms and left history in his wake, “We the Spectators” expected nothing less than the prestigious glare of gold. And understandably so. Yet, despite competing at the highest level, against the planet’s most gifted athletes, a once troubled teenager became the greatest swimmer and the most decorated Olympian in human history; even surpassing a seemingly insurmountable record that predated the birth of Christ. In an incredible 30 Olympic events – where an entire generation of scientifically sculpted challengers strove to find his shadow, but more profoundly to eclipse his fingertip – the Maryland missile failed to medal only twice; once as the youngest male swimmer in the past 68 years of Olympic competition. Since his inaugural debut at the age of 15 in the 2000 Athens games, Michael Phelps has won a staggering 23 gold medals – a record eight victories at the 2008 Beijing games in which he set seven world records and one Olympic record – all despite battling age, clinical depression, media scrutiny and addiction.
If sports has taught us anything, it’s that greatness isn’t measured by the path of least resistance beneath the allure of celebrity endorsements and the polished mantle of adulation. It’s defined by the depths of disappointment and the echoes of self-doubt somehow rising to succeed, to wake at five in the morning to relentlessly train for a blind date with uncertainty over 1400 days away, when everything in your mind tells you otherwise; when countless athletes seek to displace your namesake from the annals of history, if not the fickle flame of public perception, as your body fades from the rigors of exertion and the slow decay of time. This is why, despite the pundits and the pallbearers, the heart of a champion cannot be quantified; in fact, it’s quite often never fully appreciated or understood by the armchair masses skipping the struggle of perseverance, the undaunted footprints of the human spirit, by the flick of their taped TV remote. Excellence is not a commodity or a title by birthright: it is a marriage molded by the fires of failure, the fear of heartbreak and the indomitable power of love. To that end…thank you, Michael Phelps for the triumphs, the tears, the laughter, the fist pumps, the hard work, the memories, the bronze medals, and most of all…you. Enjoy your family, your life, your happiness, your permanent place in our hearts. You’ve earned it!