3 Reasons Why A Michael Phelps Comeback Might NOT Be The Best Thing Ever

SSP-Coach-Eric-McGinnisBy: Eric McGinnis, CSCSDirector of SSP Swim
Rollins College Strength & Conditioning Coach
Sports Performance Specialist
Spectrum Sports Performance

This article is written by guest contributor, Justin Max, a coach with Greater Columbus Swim Team of Ohio (GCSTO).

Before I even begin, let me preface everything I’m about to write by saying this: I’M A PHELPS FAN. Michael Phelps is the greatest swimmer of all time, the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, and probably the greatest Olympian of all time. The man has done more to promote the growth and expansion of the sport of swimming in this country than the 5 next best athletes combined. It would be impossible for me to even contemplate a guess as to how many youth and adolescent swimmers competing today only gave the sport I love a shot because they saw Phelps on their TV in Sydney, Athens, Beijing, or London. Every week for the past year and a half, I’ve gone to bed saying silent prayers to the swimming gods that he’d have a change of heart and give it one more shot two years from now in Rio. When I heard last Monday that he was “officially” coming out of retirement to swim in Mesa next week, I was giddy as a 15 year-old girl who just got re-tweeted by Ryan Locthe, and spent the rest of the day texting my swimming friends speculating what events he might be gunning for down in Brazil at the next Olympics.

BUT, in the week since the “news” broke that Phelps is jumping back into competition, I feel like I’ve seen about 17,000 blog posts and articles, and God only knows how many tweets and Facebook posts, exclaiming how miraculous it is, how great for the sport it is, and how all of my tedious everyday problems will now instantly be solved (Late sending in your taxes? No worries, Phelps is back!); and I feel maybe we’ve gotten just a tiny bit carried away here. I know it’s tough to think about, and even harder to talk about, but there might, just might, be a few possible drawbacks to having the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time slip on that red white and blue Speedo one more time. Without further ado, I give you my 3 Reasons Why A Michael Phelps Comeback Might NOT Be The Best Thing Ever (please send all hate mail to Eric McGinnis, he’s the one who encouraged me to write this).

Nearly every article I’ve read celebrating a potential Michael Phelps comeback has mentioned how absolutely amazing it would be to see him add on to his already record collection of 18 Olympic Golds by tacking on a few down in Rio; and it would be! I would love nothing more than to be sitting on my couch two years from now, watching Phelps win numbers 19, 20, 21, and 22…..but what if he doesn’t? Olympic gold medals are hard to come by, Phelps himself showed that back in London. That’s what made what he was able to do in Beijing so special, so awe-inspiring. What if he comes back and ‘only’ snags a Bronze? What if he can’t do better than 6th? What if, I shudder to even type it, he can’t qualify out of Trials? What if the swimmer who built his incredible legacy by outworking any and all possible competitors every week, every day, every set, and every stroke for his entire life isn’t able to just flip the switch and return to his old, dominating form? As hard as it is for athletes to let go–and for us, their fans, to let them go–there’s a lot to be said for someone going out like John Elway (longtime quarterback of the Denver Broncos, won back-to-back Super Bowls and promptly retired) opposed to Willie Mays (by most accounts one of the top 3 baseball players to ever play, who famously, or perhaps infamously, ended his career by falling down in the outfield while tracking a fly ball during the World Series in one of his last few games ever played, at the age of 42). Michael Phelps has done, and continues to do, so much for the sport. His ‘legacy’ is his (and his alone) to treat as he sees fit, but what does it do for the sport if our icon, our hero, our legend, the one swimmer out there (past or present) who is marketed nation-wide side-by-side with the likes of football, baseball, and basketball stars, goes out there and can’t live up to his own standards?
BUT WAIT! I know what you’re going to say! You’re going to tell me that Phelps has already accomplished so much, achieved such great feats, that anything he does at this point can only be icing on the cake, and can’t possible detract from what he’s already done. How do I know that’s what you’re going to say? Because I’ve already read it, in the 17,000 articles I mentioned above. I’ve seen quotes attributed to Katie Ledecky, Jessica Hardy, and just about anyone else who’s been asked about the comeback saying nothing Phelps does now can possibly affect how he’s remembered. My response? “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” If you’re not quite sure what that means, I’ll explain it the way I tried to for one of my swimmers a few weeks ago: “It’s like the Shakespearean way of saying ‘he who smelt it dealt it’ or ‘she who denied it supplied it’”. What it means, or at least what I want it to mean, is that when enough people are denying the possibility of something happening (in this case, a sub-par comeback from Phelps negatively affecting his legacy) so aggressively, it probably means there’s a good chance of that possibility becoming a reality, and that would be a shame.

I know this sounds counterintuitive, because Phelps announcing he’ll swim a Grand Prix meet has already caused more of a national media buzz than any other swimming competition besides the Olympics and World Championships. How could his comeback possibly result in less publicity? One way is because NBC, ESPN, and any other mainstream media outlets are only going to spend so much time covering swimming, regardless of who’s competing. Yes, Phelps being there definitely boosts the overall interest level and sheer volume of coverage, but there’s still a definite ceiling in play. Wouldn’t it maybe be better for the future of the sport for more of that Olympic coverage to focus on other, younger, up-and-coming stars? If NBC is willing to spend 10 hours of primetime coverage during a non-Phelps Olympics on swimming, but they’ll spend 20 hours of primetime coverage if Phelps is there, it seems like a no-brainer; 20 hours is better than 10 hours. But what if 15 of those 20 hours are spent exclusively on Phelps and Phelps-related storylines (why he came back, will this really be his last Games, how is Rio different than the others, what does his family think, etc), leaving only 5 hours for the other athletes? Couldn’t I argue that it MIGHT be better overall for the future of our sport to just settle for the 10 hours and have it distributed more evenly amongst the team? I can, and I am. To use an example closer to home; my former college teammates and I have an ongoing group text message we use to stay in touch now that we’re all scattered across the country. The topics vary day-by-day and week-by-week, but overall the subject matter is usually an equal mix of hilarity, profanity, and swimming. The swimming talk is all over the board, ranging from what workouts those of us still training have done, to what practices those of us coaching are going to try, to who’s posted what times recently on the national and international stages. You know what the topic has been since last Monday morning? Phelps, and not much time for anything else. I know they say “there’s no such thing as bad press”, but if the increased press, attention, and publicity is so exclusively focused on one individual, does it even count as press for the sport as a whole? By the way, while I’m on this note, please don’t try and tell me how the Mesa Grand Prix selling out is an irrefutable sign of what a difference a Phelps comeback makes to the marketing of the sport as a whole. The people who bought those tickets are just like me, swim junkies who would probably throw down $100 to watch Michael Phelps play a game of Marco Polo at his local rec pool, not mainstream Arizona sports fans who want to see what swimming’s all about.

Anyone familiar with swimming, whether they’re an athlete, coach, parent, or fan, is familiar with the dreaded B-word, ‘Burn-out’; but it can apply to more than just teenagers throwing down miles upon miles of yardage-based aerobic freestyle sets. It can apply to just about anything, including the coverage of a sport that focuses so intently on a single athlete. Isn’t it possible that some viewers/fans won’t respond to Michael Phelps being the centerpiece of NBC’s swimming coverage for the 4th Games in a row? I’ve talked to a lot of people over the past few days on this topic, and they all (swimmers and non-swimmers alike) seem to have gone through a pretty similar arc of interest on the coverage of Phelps at the last few Olympics that goes something like this:

Sydney-That kid’s only 15? RESPECT!

Athens-It’s cool to see this young kid grow up and challenge returning powers like Ian Thorpe. GO U-S-A!

Beijing-How awesome is it to see him really establish himself as the greatest of all time? ‘MURICA!

London-This is starting to get a little stale, but it’s “Michael’s last swim meet ever”, I guess I should be into that. GO….PHELPS!

What’s that arc of interest going to look like in two years during another Games full of Phelps-centric coverage? How are Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines even going to try and present this one to viewers: “Michael’s last swim meet ever…No, no, for real this time”? Now, I’ll openly admit that I have nothing but conjecture and unreliable anecdotal evidence to support this theory, but isn’t it at least something to consider and discuss? Isn’t it possible that some viewers might flip on the TV, tune in to NBC, see that it’s “that Phelps guy again”, and decide that maybe this might be the time to step away and walk the dog before gymnastics comes back on? We all know that swimming really only attracts any sort of national attention through/during the Olympics, and a big reason why is because the general populous finds it a little repetitive and monotonous. Even during the Olympics, NBC has to constantly try and explain the differences between the strokes/events and explain what makes each race unique. Don’t we as a sport need to be wary of having the same Phelps-finale storylines we had back in London contribute even further to that perceived sense of repetition and monotony? I think maybe we do, at least a little.

Now, like I said to start this out, don’t get me wrong–I’M A PHELPS FAN. I’m incredibly pumped to see him back in action next week, and to see what he can do over the next 2-plus years. I just think there are two sides to every coin, and the swimming community, in its general ecstasy at Phelps’ return, may be overlooking some of the possible drawbacks here that might, might, MIGHT make a Michael Phelps comeback NOT the best thing ever.

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