Michael Phelps swam the 4th fastest 100m butterly time in the world tonight, and the media headlines are about losing.
This is how we know the media has no clue about elite performance.
Phelps, the greatest swimmer ever, finished second to Ryan Lochte, who may end up as the second best swimmer ever. He did it after taking two years off, gaining 30 pounds, then quietly training back into shape over the last six months.
Today’s placement wasn’t about winning or losing. It was a kickoff. An experiment. The smile he showed in the prelims showed it has elements of a game. It’s fun.
While I’m sure Phelps would have been pumped to win, his results show he still belongs among the world’s elite swimmers. That he could be so competitive after such a short time training should terrify his rivals.
Phelps makes swimming newsworthy, just as Tiger Woods makes golf newsworthy. Both are iconic champions whose stories and skills allow millions to connect with sports that might otherwise seem cerebral or monotonous. And in our 24 hour news cycle, the stories are often shallow and written by “experts” without experience as elite performers.
There is an important story, and it’s not whether or not he will win every race he enters. It’s a story of longevity and transition.
So Phelps is back after saying he was done with competitive swimming. Is this another case of an athlete who can’t transition to other pursuits? Life after a pro sports career is a psychological minefield, and few navigate it elegantly.
I think it’s less about an inability to fade away than a new chapter in his sports experience. We’re not used to decades long sports careers. The major sports are so brutal on athletes that long careers are improbable. Where we see them are in the next tiers of sports. Meb Keflezighi just won the Boston Marathon at age 39. Despite the pundits desires to write his obituary, Roger Federer is in the top five at age 33.
I’m 48 years old and won two titles at the world championships last summer. I’ve been winning for more than 20 years. My friends joke about how I retire every year, but what I’m really doing is writing new chapters. As we rise through the ranks, winning competitions is the most important thing. Then, if we’re lucky, we see other ways to win. We see new, rich layers of the sports experience.
For three seasons, I stepped away from playing the world championships. I had won 11 world championship titles, and I was satisfied. My thirst for new experiences in my sport was stronger than my drive for more wins. I stepped away from the biggest competitions, but I didn’t step away from my sport. I mentored other players. I expanded my skills by exploring modes of play that didn’t fit neatly into competition formats. And I forged deeper friendships with the people in my sport. I was playing my sport in a different way, and it recharged me. Since then, I’ve won four more world championships. Though I get grief for “retiring” every year, it’s more about giving myself freedom to find new joy in freestyle. Freestyle is too fun to retire from. I plan to enjoy it in evolving and unexpected ways for as long as I can.
Phelps needed to recharge after London. Part of truly recharging is the freedom to completely walk away and explore. A break is too finite. He needed the label of retirement to give himself the reward he had earned. So now he’s swimming again, and I think it’s likely he’s doing this for the right reasons: because he loves his sport, he loves competition and he’s still capable of performing at a level he’s proud of. Yeah, there’s a chance he’s doing it because he still feels incomplete or unable to transition away, but I get the impression this new chapter of swimming is different.
Some statistics predict that we will have, on average, eleven chapters in our careers. It takes resilience to move through so many changes. To do it with satisfaction, we need agility, awareness and more. Eleven shifts sounds a lot more demanding than swimming for fifteen years, taking two years off, then swimming again. And yet the strategies elite athletes use to navigate through their careers can be essential tools for us as we chart our own course.
I feel fortunate to have learned so much in my sports career and to be able to share it with those going through their own transitions. I’m here if you want support.