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AUGUST 17, 2016

I was 7 years old, sitting on cheetah print chairs and giggling with my family the first time I heard the name Michael Phelps. Little did I know at the time that he was destined to become the greatest Olympian of all time.

Nothing gets me more spirited than the Summer Olympics. And it isn’t because of the opening ceremony or the track and field or women’s soccer or even gymnastics. There is only one sport I watch the Olympics for — swimming. And Phelps has always been the reason why.

It’s easy for me, at 19 years old, to say that my attending a school like UC Berkeley puts me on an above-average path. But at 19 years old, Michael Phelps had already won six gold medals and two bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics. At this point in his career, he was no longer fighting to be above-average or even great — the teenager was chasing the ghosts of swimmers past to become the very best of all time.

Nothing seemed out of Phelps’ reach. It appeared that his indomitable yet so effortless swimming stroke would net him gold after gold until he had achieved everything he could ever want to. Any public discredit or doubt went straight to the bulletin board at the back of his head to brew until it was time to get up on the starting blocks. Never once did Phelps, the most justified to brag of anyone, run his mouth. And what is more loveable than a gracious winner?

He soon became America’s — but especially my — sweetheart. His angelic image didn’t last long, though, with slip-ups following every dazzling Olympic performance. Phelps was arrested for DUIs in 2004 and 2014, and he was also caught smoking from a bong after the 2008 Games. The Kellogg Company dropped him, and all of America was disappointed in their eager disillusionment of someone they had given a god-like status.

Nobody doubted his athletic abilities, but my friends and family became turned off to his out-of-pool interactions. I probably should have been too, but for some reason, I could never get myself to hate him. I held too much respect for him, and the commitment he had made to swimming, to turn on my hero so quickly. Despite what his swimming would indicate, he is human and therefore entitled to make mistakes.

But each time people crossed him off their hero list, they’d always come creeping back when he headlined at the Olympics. There is something about him that draws you in — an inescapable watchability of his sport that’s hard to fully describe. You watch swimming because of him. You know who other swimmers are because they have raced against him. You literally turn on the Olympics to witness the fierce competitor within him.

Michael Phelps also adds an aspect of emotion to swimming. Every time he gets up on those blocks, every spectator knows that they’re in for a show. And every time you see his arms flap, right before the gun goes off, you know this is the real deal.


And every time he stands on the top of that podium with the U.S. national anthem serenading, you feel a sense of déjà vu to go along with the unmatched amount of respect. There are simply too many inspiring moments in his 16-year Olympic career to ever be forgotten — from his crazy 2004 win over teammate Ian Crocker by 0.04 seconds, to the 0.01-second win over Milorad Cavic in the 100 fly, to eight gold medals in Beijing, to a heartbreaking London loss to Chad Le Clos in the 200 fly, to becoming the most decorated Olympian ever in 2012 with 22 medals (18 gold), to taking back the 200 fly in Rio. As he finally stood on the podium for the last time, fighting back tears with 28 lifetime medals — 23 of them gold — around his neck, all questions ever asked of him laid answered.

It’s gotten to the point that I feel lucky to have been born in an era that featured such an amazing athlete and human. I will admit I had my doubts, especially before London. My diehard fandom even had a brief summer fling with Ryan Lochte (and whose didn’t?), as I rocked plastic glasses with his catchphrase “jeah” on them. But during the 2012 trials, I found myself secretly cheering for Phelps once again, realizing I just couldn’t give up on my hero.

But that’s what makes the best athletes who they are. The greats don’t allow you to give up on them, no matter how many mistakes they’ve made or how unprepared they may seem. Michael Phelps has had his fair share of missteps, but to me, that makes his character all the more appealing. He is both relatable, yet untouchable — transitioning from America’s 19-year-old swimming sweetheart to our 31-year-old national hero. In each incredible moment, it was difficult to grasp the extent of his accomplishments. But as we look back on the totality of his career now, it is clear that he has achieved more in 16 years than anyone ever will. If he doesn’t make a Tokyo 2020 comeback (sorry Ryan Lochte), he can walk away knowing that he has brought the sport of swimming from basically nonexistent to one of the most watched sports at the Summer Games. As if that weren’t enough, I think it’s valid to make the argument that he is among greatest athletes ever.

Contact Taylor Choe at [email protected].

AUGUST 17, 2016

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