The headlines might have duped you into thinking Michael Phelps stands alone in Olympic history, but that’s just not true. Here’s the real story.
All week long, the headlines have screamed about Michael Phelps and his incredible Olympic run. Certainly, Phelps is an undisputed champion, deserving of the accolades heaped upon him. But dozens of papers and high profile news sites have chosen to say that Phelps “stands alone” in Olympic history, a turn of phrase that just doesn’t seem to fit.
I think his mother and sisters would disagree, even as they celebrate his incredible success. They have been there for every race, cheering him on, beaming with pride, whooping with unadulterated joy as he cements his place in the history books by smashing world records to smithereens.
Stands alone? Is it even possible for a true champion to stand alone, unsupported by family and close friends? Remember, champions aren’t only defined by Olympic gold. Our children excel in all kinds of areas — sports, academics, philanthropy and creativity can all give rise to champions. But to transcend that title, to move, as Phelps has done in Beijing, to hero, that’s not something anyone does alone.
That’s probably how many of the Chinese gymnasts feel. The girls who sparked Olympic controversy with questions about their age, the girls who look not only young, but a little bit terrified. The girls who, according to some reports, called their parents over the years and asked to come home. The girls who were told to stick with the program and compete. The girls who have succeeded and become gold medalists, who brought a stadium to its feet and are the pride of a nation — in the middle of all the cheering and celebrating, it is these girls who truly stand alone.
Stands alone. It’s probably not a term that Phelps would use. After all, he’s a team player, and it’s his team that helped him get to where he is. He stands with his team, stands up for his team, supports his teammates and draws support from them. He brushes off the suggestion that he wins the relays for his teammates, or that they only swam well to help his medal quest. He makes it clear that they are a true team — all for one and one for all — and that they win together because they swim together.
Stands alone. It’s an intriguing notion, this idea of a champion who counts on no one but himself. It discounts the coaches who trained him, the family who sacrificed some of their own dreams for his, the friends who were satisfied with coming in second to his swimming for so many years. It overlooks the fans who cheered him on all the way, across oceans and continents and made him a star.
Stands alone. It’s not something that’s possible for the greatest Olympian of all time. You can’t climb to the top of a pyramid unless the rest of the pyramid is there. And Phelps knows it. As he told NBC, “The people who came before us and competed in the Olympic games are some of the greatest athletes who ever lived.” And of course, the real anchor, the rock that keeps Michael Phelps grounded, is clearly his mother. And when he tossed her his flowers, he might as well have told the world, “I do not ever stand alone.”