Although we’re still in the midst of Rio 2016, the most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps, has said goodbye. Phelps has retired after enjoying a career of unequivocal success. He has won twenty eight medals since he first competed in 2000; were he to be viewed as a country on his own, there would only be 32 nations who have won more than him.
Phelps’ success is thanks in no small part to his physical attributes; at 6ft 4in tall, with size 14 feet, shovel-like hands and arms which can stretch out to a combined reach of 6ft 7in, he seems made for water and built for success. Alongside natural talent, however, has been a great deal of hard work, with Phelps claiming in interviews that he even went five years without taking a break from training – apparently spending 3-6 hours a day in the pool for 1825 consecutive days, while also training outside of it. His success is testament to what happens when natural ability and hard work are married together; but what proves this even more are the recent years when his ability to obtain constant success has come into question.
Phelps let his standards drop. He trained less, arrived to the pool hungover, and even missed practice altogether.
In the build up to the 2012 Olympics, Phelps let his standards drop. He trained less, often arrived to the pool hungover, and even missed practice altogether – most notably skipping training for ten days in a row following a fight with his trainer. He arrived in London under prepared, and if the achievements in those Olympics highlight his talent – who else could win two gold medals in a state described as under prepared? – they also highlighted the need for hard work to go alongside it. By Phelps’ incredible standards, a mere two gold medals was underachievement.
Phelps’ situation was encapsulated by the 200 fly race, an event he hadn’t lost in for over a decade. He finished second, and his coach said, “That race was a freaking miracle by a guy who didn’t train (properly) for that event for three years…No one else in history could reach down like that, at that moment, and get to the point where he could get out-touched by five-hundredths.” Phelps’ performance proved just how far his talent alone could take him, but also showed that without the work to go with it, even he had his limits.
Phelps admits he had fallen out of love with swimming, and away from the pool things would get worse before they got better. In September of 2014, Phelps was arrested for driving under the influence, and later checked himself into a forty-five day stint in rehab. He has since said, “I sent myself down a downward spiral…I had to get something under control, whatever it was. I look back at that night, and everything happened for a reason.”
When Phelps recovered he was in no doubt that he wanted to compete at the Rio Olympics, and he has repeatedly said that he viewed the games as a chance to retire the way he wanted to. In order to do this he had to apply himself more than ever before, putting in work which we often forget athletes like him have to endure. When we watch Phelps it is like watching Usain Bolt: as he defeats the other fastest men on the planet with alarming ease it is easy to bask in the mystical nature of it, and forget the hard work that goes on behind the scenes to ensure that this natural ability can shine.
Perhaps there are times when talent alone can carry these athletes through. In qualifiers and team relays it often seems this way. But when it came to regaining the 200 fly race title that Phelps had missed out on in London, this was not the case. Before the race Phelps sat, hood up, with a look of focus that was almost primal; afterwards, having won, he stayed in the pool, raised both index fingers in the air and flexed his biceps, defiant. In what was ultimately a comparatively slow race, these actions before and after told us as much about Phelps as his performance itself. They were the actions of someone who had regained an undeniable top spot in his sport, and who had needed much more than mere talent to do so.