There was a time, almost 10 years ago, when it was my job to follow Michael Phelps around the country -- and around the world -- documenting his every move. I studied his facial expressions, scribbled down his splits during every race and frequently lingered on the pool deck for more than an hour after his races were over, hoping he would eventually wander over and share a few snippets of insight that I could relay to readers.
I felt like I knew him then, as well as anyone who covered swimming, which was also to say, barely at all.
Writing about him as he grew up in the public eye, stumbles and all, was complicated. What he did in the pool, on his best nights, was surreal. I frequently sat down in front of my laptop after watching him break a world record and felt like no words in my head could do it justice. He pushed the limits of human potential, and to witness that, again and again, was one of the great blessings of my career.
He also often seemed more like a corporation than a person. He lived in a bubble, a bubble he both needed and resented. He rarely looked people in the eye when he answered questions. He rarely spoke frankly about anything. For promotional purposes, he decided that he needed to be bland and polite every time the cameras were on. When they were off, he could be surly, indifferent and immature. Other than his coach, Bob Bowman, he didn't have many people in his life who could be brutally honest with him, and it showed. (I once asked Bowman if he felt like a father figure in Phelps' life, considering Phelps went months and years without speaking to his father, Fred. Bowman explained that their relationship was far more complicated than that.)
Phelps was trying to figure out who he was -- like so many of us as we transition from our teens to our 20s -- but he had to do it with the world watching. At times, that was suffocating. He shared the same anecdotes, over and over, that he thought were symbolic of his growth. Once you heard them a few times, you understood that he was essentially reading a script people wanted to hear.
I was the hometown newspaper reporter assigned to shadow him in the years leading up to Beijing, and though we got along fairly well, we grew weary of seeing one another's faces. I once flew across the country to hang out with him before an award show, lured by the promise of an hour-long one-on-one interview, only to have it end after four minutes. I looked at my digital recorder in horror as he was whisked away by his handlers. There were no apologies. Phelps made it clear, in that moment and many others, who held all the power in our dynamic.
Greatness requires a certain amount of selfishness. I understood that and never held it against him. The reality of who he was and who he is now has always been more complicated than most people understand. I watched him treat people poorly, listened to other swimmers gripe about him in private and mulled over how much any of it mattered. (Some of the complaints were jealousy; some were legitimate.) As Walt Whitman said, we all contain multitudes. I also saw Phelps act friendly, generous and human.
This was especially true with kids. He had a bottomless supply of patience at swim meets for all the kids who wanted pictures, autographs, hugs or high-fives. A lot of interactions with people, he tolerated or faked. With kids, it always seemed genuine. It was as if he knew, on a subconscious level, that his own childhood had been given away in exchange for his sports destiny, and when he saw kids just learning how to swim the butterfly, he longed for that innocence. One of the first times I thought he was genuinely curious about my life was after my daughter was born in 2009. I mentioned it in passing, little more than small talk, and he wanted to hear more. He urged me to enroll her in swim lessons as soon as possible.
I thought about all of this on Saturday while watching Phelps win gold in the 4x100-meter medley relay, the race he insists will be his last. Sports narratives are always cleaner than reality. It's easy to say he has found peace, that he's sober, that he's content leaving the sport the right way. I so want this to be true, because if it is, it's a hopeful story. It's a much better ending than seeing him get another DUI at 4 a.m. or watching him gamble, all alone, at the local casino because he's still struggling for a purpose outside the pool. With Olympians, we frequently make the mistake of trying to cast them as reflections of our best selves. That only magnifies their mistakes when they make them, as if they've let the whole country down. It's unfair, but that arrangement seems to be inescapable.
I don't know how Phelps will handle retirement. I didn't think he was finished after London, despite his insistence that it was over, but I do think it's over now. Countless obstacles exist, however, just beyond the horizon. I hope he finds something else to chase, something to fulfill him.
It might be family. It warmed my heart to see Phelps and his fiancée, Nicole Johnson, holding their son, Boomer, in Rio this week. I once asked him about Nicole, who was an off-and-on presence in his life even prior to Beijing. In a rare moment of candor, without using her name, he said any girl who required anything of him beyond the bare minimum wasn't going to last in his life. He was the person he wanted to be, he had goals he was going to pursue, and he saw no need to change. It was an interesting window into a 23-year-old's view of love and relationships. To see him now, striving to be an equal partner and parent while juggling one last athletic challenge, is a beautiful coda to his swimming career.
Now, he likely faces the biggest challenge of his life. He has to figure out who he is and what he's capable of without the water. I think he'll succeed, but maturity and sobriety are an endless journey, a fidelity to an idea, not a finish line you cross and never struggle with again. Every four years, Phelps gave us some incredible memories, and while there were certainly rewards, he also paid a price along the way.
Root for the second act of his life to be just as rewarding as the first.