The thing about swimming is the loneliness. It is remarkable for how isolating it is, even as a sport that takes place in arenas full of people. At the highest levels, it is a race run without the ability to even tell where you are in relation to anyone else.
It is all blur and formless sound. There is the lane ahead of you, the wash around you, the kick and the turn. But in the heat of it, there is a distinct sense that you are alone in this race. You cannot hear or see your family and friends. You cannot make out the cheers or jeers. And if you glimpse your opponents, it is only because you are losing.
Michael Phelps last night won his 20th and 21st Gold Medals, extending his record for the most of any Olympian. He became the oldest man to win an individual swimming Gold and the first to win such medals 12 years apart. He tied a 2,168 year old record, set by the runner Leonidas of Rhodes in 152 B.C., of 12 individual Gold medals. And he did so while matching personal bests, achieved when he was eight years younger and benefiting from the high tech buoyancy of suit technology which is now banned.
Phelps has been a controversial figure due to his personal life, which often indicated many of the aspects we see and judge in the top competitors of our age: a lack of personal responsibility, a cocky above the law attitude, a tendency to drift toward excess and to treat the people in your life disrespectfully. What sets Phelps apart is what he has done since his DUI, his second, in 2014 – coming back from gambling alone at a Baltimore casino. Phelps was at rock bottom – a dysfunctional family situation, an unstable relationship with an on-again off-again girlfriend, drifting toward alcoholism and retired from the sport he once loved. He was suicidal. But before going into rehab, a fellow Baltimore athlete, Ray Lewis, pressed Rick Warren’s book into his hands.
He maintains he hasn’t had a drink since then. He has reconciled with his father. He asked his girlfriend, now the mother of his son, to marry him. When Phelps is asked about his faith, he says that it “turned me into believing there is a power greater than myself and there is a purpose for me on this planet… It helped me when I was in a place where I needed the most help.”
The undercurrent of it all – in the drunk tank or the water or atop the stage – is a reminder that man is not alone. And that is a good thing to know.