LONDON — There seems no way to wrap your arms around what Michael Phelps has done at the Olympics. The man won 22 medals — 18 of them gold. It’s mind-blowing, really. Analysts wander around London using words like “greatest” and “most honored” and “legendary,” but these words have been so overworked that they barely mean anything.
People argue about Phelps’ place in the history of the Olympics, and the arguments are fun, but they don’t add up to much. I like what five-time gold medalist Michael Johnson said when asked who was, in his mind, the greatest Olympic track athlete. He said Jesse Owens. And when asked if Usain Bolt, should he win three gold medals at these Games, would surpass Owens, Johnson shrugged. He said that when we ask who is the GREATEST Olympic athlete, what we are really asking is who is your FAVORITE Olympic athlete. His is Jesse Owens. That will not change.
So, some will say Phelps — by virtue of his record-setting 22 medals — has to be the greatest Olympian ever. Others will say that swimming simply gives out more medals than other sports, and that it is not fair to say that Phelps’ sheer numbers make him a greater athlete than Carl Lewis (who won nine gold medals and the long jump four Olympics in a row) or Daley Thompson (who won the decathlon in back-to-back Olympics) or Nadia Comaneci (who won nine Olympic medals, five gold, and reimagined what gymnastics perfection looks like). Different sports, different expectations, different medal possibilities.
But I wanted to look at Phelps in a different way. So, I did what I always like to do when I want to see the world through the eyes of a perfectionist. I called my friend Melvin Stewart.
Mel Stewart and I grew up together, really. He’s about a year and a half younger than I am, but we both started in our professions at the same time. I wanted to become a sportswriter. He wanted to become the best butterfly swimmer in the world.
The first time I wrote about him, I was 19, he was 17 and I’m pretty sure I got every single detail of his race wrong. I do think I got the part right about how there was water involved. That was the sum of my swimming knowledge. Mel was more amused by my incompetence than put off by it; he decided to teach me. Two years later, in 1988, we went to Austin, Texas, together for the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials. It was my first big assignment as a reporter. It was his big step toward his goal.
Mel qualified for the Olympics in Seoul and was a medal favorite, but he finished fifth there. It was after those Games that I came to understand just how much it matters, just how deeply a world-class athlete connects with winning and losing. He was always insanely competitive — I remember him going on and on about how he would beat me at tennis even though: (1) He did not play tennis and, (2) I did play, a lot and reasonably well. His logic, though, was impeccable. He said, “I’m a million times better athlete than you, and I would not allow you to beat me.”
But those four years after Seoul, he was different. He was angry those four years. He was driven in a way that was jarring. Mel is a great guy — funny, thoughtful, goofy and utterly self-aware in a way that is rare. But those four years, I saw up close the fury that an athlete needs inside to push through to such great heights. In 1991, Mel set the 200-meter butterfly world record. In 1992, he won gold in the 200-meter butterfly, and won another gold and a bronze in relays.
“There are athletes,” he says, “well, like [backstroking star] Aaron Peirsol. Every race for Aaron was a joyful performance. That’s so rare. For me, I was so angry, so focused, I felt like a hit man. In any other part of society, that attitude would be weird, it would be wrong, you’d have to go to a shrink.”
After 1992, Mel felt so much relief, and he felt like his old self, and he was funnier and more relaxed … and in sports they call that “losing your edge.” He was still one of the best butterfly swimmers in the world, but he made some training mistakes going into the Olympic trials in 1996, and he failed to qualify for the team. I remember seeing him in the warm-down pool after that race, and he looked up at me and gave me this odd smile, one that either said, “It’s all over,” in a sad way or “It’s all over!” in the happiest and loudest way imaginable.
“Yeah, it was strange,” he says. “It was a huge disappointment. And yet, it was a huge relief knowing I was done. It’s so nice to know you don’t have another race.”
That was his last race. He thought he was done. You would not believe who brought him back.
For years, Mel Stewart avoided swimming. Oh, at first he did some broadcasting, and he stayed around the sport, that seemed the natural transition. But that didn’t feel right to him. Swimming was part of his old life. He found the conversations he had with people about his Olympic experience were stilted and odd. He did not want to live in the past. Anyway, how could he explain why it meant so much to him? How could he explain it to himself? “Swimming,” he says, “is so painful. And it’s so lonely. It’s a very lonely sport. You spend all your time alone and muffled and inside your head.”
He went to Hollywood and wrote scripts. He got married, started a family. He involved himself in a few business deals here and there. For the most part, he left swimming behind. I ask him if he missed swimming, and he says that it did not really dawn on him much. His life was interesting. He felt no aching void. He was still an Olympic champion, and that led to some opportunities, and he kept an eye on swimming from a distance. But for the most part, he was on to the next thing.
Then in 2007, he decided to watch Phelps swim the 200-meter butterfly at the World Championships. Phelps swam it in 1:52.09 — more than three seconds faster than Stewart’s fastest time 16 years earlier — and something thoroughly unexpected happened.
“It was like a religious experience,” Mel says. “I don’t even have the words for it. It was like this guy had just painted the most beautiful 200 meters I had ever seen. It was just gorgeous. And I felt this intimate connection. It’s like he was doing something so amazing and beautiful, and I was maybe one of two or three guys on the planet who could really understand it and appreciate it. … I was unsettled for weeks.”
Mel says it was watching that swim — seeing Michael Phelps’ greatness not the way we as fans see it, but the way that the greatest butterfly swimmer of his time saw it — that made him realize what was missing. He went to his wife, Tiffany, and said, “I want to be involved in swimming again.” Seven months later, he was interviewing Phelps on a pool deck (“I was star-struck,” he says) and doing some swimming writing on the side.
Earlier this year, Mel and his wife started a swimming website — swimswam.com — that he says has received more than 3 million page views and more than 500,000 unique users. He says that unexpected success, like its inspiration, is due to Michael Phelps. But perhaps the greatest gift that Phelps has given Mel is that after all these years he has brought swimming back into his life.
“You know what’s a crazy feeling?” Mel says. “You get into the water and you realize that you’re better in the water than you are walking on land. It’s like you become a fish. You get in the water and it just feels right in your brain.”
Everyone has an opinion about whether Phelps will swim again. You would expect Phelps’ opinion that he’s done swimming to be the most significant one*, but everyone has seen athletes and coaches insist that they’re done only to come back soon after. In this way, the words of NBC’s Rowdy Gaines, who says he thinks Phelps will be back, have traction with people.
*One of the great Olympic Twitter moments came when swimmer Dara Torres wrote: “I’m betting Michael Phelps isn’t done swimming … anyone care to wager?” And Phelps retweeted it, with the comment: “Yes I would love 2!!!”
Mel Stewart does not claim to know or even to have a strong leaning about whether Phelps will swim again. Phelps has surprised him throughout. After Phelps won eight medals at the 2004 Olympics in Athens — six of them gold — Mel expected him to flame out right then. “You just can’t do that much work mentally and physically without burning yourself out,” he says. “I thought it was over.”
After Phelps came back and won those eight gold medals in Beijing, he thought for sure that was it. He had done it. What was left to accomplish? What more could drive him? But Phelps returned again. He won six more medals, four of them gold. Mel watched these Olympics in awe.
“Here’s something to think about,” he says. “Michael swims the 400 IM — that’s one of the most physically grueling races in our sport. It’s a distance race. The training for that is insane. He had an off day at the Olympics and finished fourth, meaning even in an off day he’s still one of the four fastest swimmers in the world in the 400 IM.
“OK, now he trained for the 400 IM. But in the 100-meter freestyle relay, he swam a 47.1. Even if you take into account the relay start, translated that is fast enough to win a medal in the 100 meters. It makes him a contender for the gold medal at 100 meters. If he had done that time in the 100 meters he would have been stroke for stroke with [gold medalist] Nathan Adrian and [silver medalist] James Magnussen.
“That’s what makes him different from anyone else. Did Jesse Owens run the 400? No, he did the 100, 200 and long jump. Did Michael Johnson run the 100? No, he did the 200 and 400. Michael is just different. He can do anything.”
Mel predicts that Phelps will be very happy to get away from swimming for a while. He will be happy to be away from the training, the monotony, the sheer oppression of it all. But he says, at some point, Phelps will get in the pool in a semi-serious way. And he will feel what Mel felt, that fish-in-water power, and maybe he will swim 25 meters and he will realize that he’s still fast (“You don’t lose it.”). Maybe he will swim 50 meters, and the same feeling will hit him. And that’s when he will be tempted to try a 3,000-meter workout, just to see …
And at that point? Well, Mel has no predictions about that — it will be up to Phelps. “Maybe he is gone,” Mel says. “Maybe 22 trips to the podium are enough.”
With that, Mel tells one more story: He sat on the couch with his wife in Texas a few days ago and watched Phelps on the stand for his 22nd medal. He found himself thinking back to when he was on the podium with that gold medal wrapped around his neck in Barcelona. The Star-Spangled Banner was playing. And for all the world, he felt like crying. He felt like crying because he had dreamt of that moment his whole life, he had worked through pain that he could never explain, he had come back from disappointment that he thought would destroy him. He had endured, and now the joy and relief wanted to just pour out of him.
“But you couldn’t cry,” Mel says, his narrative jumping into the second person. “You were just a kid. If you cried, you were weak. Of course, you weren’t weak, but you didn’t know that then. You were young and immature, you didn’t know anything.”
And as Mel watched Phelps on the medal stand, he found himself hoping that Phelps would let his emotions go, let himself feel everything. For a second, Phelps looked like he might let it go. But then he shook it off and thanked his teammates. Mel wondered about that for a long time after that.
“I don’t want to see him go,” Mel says. “He’s given us so much. I don’t want to see it end.”