Michael Phelps and US swimming’s remarkable comeback story

Michael Phelps’s return certainly played a role in fueling the team’s success in Rio. But his personal transformation may have been as important as his gold medals. 

Dominic Ebenbichler/Reuters
The American men's 4 x 100m medley relay team celebrates their gold medal at the Rio Olympics on Saturday, Aug. 13. From left: Michael Phelps, Cody Miller, Nathan Adrian, and Ryan Murphy.

Last year at this time, sports commentators were bemoaning the decline of US swimming.

For the first time in 14 years, the US didn’t win the overall medal count at the world championships (China did). In the 200-meter backstroke, which the Americans had dominated for two decades, 2012 Olympic gold medalist Tyler Clary finished a distant seventh. Michael Phelps, arrested for DUI, didn’t even make it to the starting blocks. 

But the athletes saw something that the results didn’t show.

“I’m tired about hearing how the Americans are doing here,” said Clary, according to the Washington Post. “One year from now [at Rio], no one will be talking about what happened here…. We’re all sticking together as a team.”

And indeed, the team seems to have come together in a way that has obliterated last year’s disappointments. As the Rio Olympics unfolded, athlete after athlete, some visibly shocked to win medals, spoke of how inspired they were by another’s performance – or buoyed by the team’s belief in them.

“I know Michael’s swim just got me pumped up,” said Townley Haas, who swam the fastest split in the 4x200 meter freestyle relay, which Michael Phelps anchored to gold after winning another race earlier in the evening. “It was just awesome to watch that. It got me so ready to go. And I think we kind of feed off each other in that way.”

Simone Manuel became the first African-American to win gold. Dana Vollmer came back to win gold in the relay after becoming a mother. Ryan Murphy broke a 7-year-old world record with the opening leg of the men’s relay on Saturday night. Every single American swimmer advanced out of the preliminary heats at these Games, according to NBC.

With two events to go, the Americans' 33 medals in the pool have already tied the country's best swimming medal haul since 1992. And Phelps increased his historic medal count to 28 – all but five of them gold.

It may be what Phelps did out of the pool that was even more important though.

Friends, fellow swimmers, and longtime coach Bob Bowman indicate that the swimming phenom has undergone a transformation that has enabled him to be much more of a team leader.

Behind Phelps’ success in London was a man who didn’t want to be swimming, but didn’t know what else to do with his life. He skipped workouts so frequently that his coach resorted to organizing Friend Fridays, inviting Phelps’ non-swimming friends to a pool workout in hopes that he would show up, too.

Amid relationship troubles and a stint at a rehab center after his 2014 DUI arrest, Phelps and others say he underwent serious self-examination and has returned more focused, disciplined, and happy. And that has been largely on display in Rio, apart from the scowl that went viral, and a moment of rather unsportsmanlike bravado after beating nemesis Chad Le Clos from South Africa.

“… for a long time, I saw myself as the athlete that I was, but not as a human being,” Phelps said in a Sports Illustrated interview last year. That changed at the rehab center, he said, where he was surrounded by people who respected him as a person rather than a medalist. “… in my group, we formed a family. We all wanted to see each other succeed. It was a new experience for me.”

Perhaps it was at least in part because Phelps embraced that ethos that he was named flag-bearer for the US Olympic team this year.

"When they first told us in the team meeting that he was being nominated, everybody got so excited because it feels so right to have the most decorated Olympian of all time being our flag-bearer and leading us,” said two-time Olympian Missy Franklin, according to the New York Times. “And outside of the pool, having someone who has overcome so much internally, externally, and shared that with everyone and just shown people what an inspiration he is.”

But a team is never about just one individual, or how many medals they win. It’s also about how they support each other in tough workouts or after races – from the intuitive teammates who know who needs a hug and who needs space, to the effervescent ones that pump everyone up.

Judging from the smiles in Rio, the US team is succeeding not just in the pool, but outside, too.

“This camaraderie we have is so special and so unique and we do stuff like sing lip-sync videos to Call Me Maybe and show the world that yes, we're competitors, yes, we're fierce, but we are also having the time of our lives while we’re doing it," Franklin said before the Games started. “I think a message that our whole team really wants to get across to people is that, ‘No matter what you do, work as hard as you can at it but make sure you are also enjoying it.’”  

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