We are Michael Phelps.
I don’t mean that you and I actually share the same DNA as a man who recently broke one of the more unbreakable records in all of sports; but we are Michael Phelps.
Interestingly enough, so are our spouses. So are our kids. So are our parents. So are our co-workers.
We are all Michael Phelps, really.
Michael Phelps captivated us in part over the last 10 days because what he did was incredible. In fact, what he did in the Beijing Water Cube was not only something that we had never seen before; it is quite possibly something we will never see again. We can attempt to downplay the overall accomplishment; but he stands alone. No one has done it. He is in a class by himself. It truly is amazing.
But the accomplishment itself isn’t the only reason we have been captivated by Michael Phelps.
The accomplishment itself isn’t the only reason why three times as many Baltimoreans watched the Olympics Saturday night than the Ravens game (5 times as many during the time Phelps was clinching gold medal number 8-numbers courtesy of The Sun’s Ray Frager).
The accomplishment itself isn’t the only reason why our own Nestor Aparicio called the viewing of Phelps’ swim “the most dramatic moment in M&T Bank Stadium history.”
The reason why Michael Phelps has stolen our minds from the Ravens, Orioles, the rest of the Olympics, our jobs, our friends, and even our loved ones is because we ARE Michael Phelps.
Let me explain.
Until Michael Phelps, the most significant athletes to have been born in this region were Babe Ruth and Cal Ripken, Jr.
While Babe Ruth is in the argument regarding the greatest athletes of all time, those of us watching the Beijing games likely have no recollection of anything regarding George Herman Ruth. Even if we were old enough to remember him; he is remembered by most as a Yankee. We don’t really see ourselves when we look at the playboy image that we view Ruth in; and we don’t see ourselves EVER putting on those pinstripes.
Cal Ripken Jr. is not widely considered amongst the greatest athletes of all time. In fact, when ESPN named their 100 greatest North American athletes of the 21st century, Ripken didn’t even make the list. Even if he was in the argument, we might find it hard to identify with Cal on a personal level. Cal came from a sports family; was brought up around the Baltimore Orioles, and had certain advantages many of us did not. Stories-whether true or not-about Cal asking for special travel arrangements have sometimes clouded how we view a man who represented a region so well throughout his life.
To be fair, the athlete fans in this region have most identified with themselves is likely Johnny Unitas. Born the son of a coal miner, Unitas often embodied the blue collar qualities many in Baltimore could relate to. The only thing about Johnny U that was different than most of us was that Johnny wasn’t actually from Baltimore.
Michael Phelps however, IS from Baltimore. Michael Phelps went to Towson High; a school many of us have attended, played sports against, or even just driven by. Michael Phelps has shopped at the same places we’ve shopped, vacationed at the same places we’ve traveled, and even swam in the same pools where we’ve swam. We know his family. We know his friends. We’ve volunteered at the same Boys & Girls club in Harford County where he is an honorary board member.
Michael Phelps has an identifiable personality. The giddiness he showed when receiving an autographed Ravens jersey, or when rooting his friend Jason Lezak on to a relay gold is the same giddiness we have shown when we received an authentic Todd Heap jersey for Christmas, or when rooting for the receiver who magically caught the ball to get to the end zone on the last play of our backyard football game. We feel like Michael Phelps might well just be another one of the guys from our little league team, or that we go bowling with.
Michael Phelps seems real. Many of us have lived with ADHD like he has, or have known someone close to us who has. Many of us have come from broken families similar to his. Many of us have been embarrassed by mistakes we’ve made at 19 (or even later in life!) and have had to work to regain the trust of those around us. Many of us have been scrutinized for our every action, comment, and thought; although maybe not the extent he is.
And Michael Phelps is, inarguably, amongst the greatest athletes in the world both currently and in history. He is as dominant in his sport as Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Tiger Woods, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Carl Lewis, Babe Ruth, Johnny Unitas, Jack Nicklaus, Pele, Jim Brown, etc. have been in their respective sports. He owns 14 Olympic gold medals, with more to come. He is completely unflappable. He is as good as the hype that was given him; if not better. He is special.
That’s why we’re captivated.
Despite the fact that he might well be living in a stratosphere most of us will never even fly near; he really feels like one of us.
I can’t wait for the first time I’m eating lunch at the Green Turtle-or La Tolteca-or anywhere, and Michael Phelps walks in just for some Turtle Bites, or a burrito, or even a Natural Light. It will be a reminder of the emotions we shared while watching him in Beijing.
We weren’t just watching one of the greatest athletes of all time, we were watching ourselves.