For Baltimore area swimmers between the ages of 8 and 18, the last weekend of July is always an important time. It marks the end of the summer swim team season, as thousands of youngsters compete in divisional championships with trophies, ribbons and bragging rights around their respective neighborhood swim clubs at stake.
This year, as the youngsters climb the blocks (or, in the case of backstroke, jump into the pool) you can bet there will be one swimmer above all in their minds: Baltimore's ownMichael Phelps, the greatest swimmer and perhaps the greatest Olympic athlete of all time.
What the Rodgers Forge native has accomplished over the last two Olympics is the stuff of legend — six gold and two bronze in Athens in 2004 and eight gold medals in Beijing four years ago. One of the few records left would be for him to surpass the 18 overall medals Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina captured over several Olympics in the 1950s and early '60s.
Nobody expects Michael to equal in London what he accomplished in Beijing. He is older now (27, which is average for Olympic competitors but old by swimming standards) and no longer as dominant internationally in the sport. He will be entered in seven events, not eight, so a repeat is not even possible mathematically. Even so, some have questioned his work ethic and expect a strong showing from his rival Ryan Lochte, who impressed at last year's world championships.
But don't write him off just yet. He remains a formidable competitor, a physically-gifted athlete — with a body shape uniquely suited for his sport — who also possesses the mental toughness required to practice and compete at such an extraordinary level. At the recent U.S. Olympic trials, it was Mr. Lochte who was more often second-best.
All eyes will surely be trained on Michael at Friday's Olympic opening ceremonies. He has transcended swimming to become an international celebrity. To some extent, he is not only the face of the U.S. Olympic team but of international athletics. He has earned millions of dollars in endorsement deals and could leave it all behind tomorrow and live a comfortable life.
But despite all the glory, in interview after interview he still comes across as the same, slightly gawky guy with the supportive mother and family. In this respect, he remains a Baltimorean through and through, unpretentious, unaffected, and less robotic than he may have seemed at Olympics past. In some respects, he is still the teen who famously could put away a gargantuan breakfast at Pete's Grill that would feed six lesser mortals.
Michael, who helped put Baltimore on the map for something other than drugs and violence, purchased Meadowbrook and trained for his final Olympics at the Mt. Washington swim facility alongside North Baltimore Aquatic Club swimmers. He talks of being permanently connected to his hometown and how much he has been inspired by the Ravens and especially linebacker Ray Lewis.
That kind of hometown pride is much appreciated, and it's one reason why so many will be glued to our televisions from now until Aug. 12, including people who could not tell the difference between a breaststroke and a freestyle. The technical aspects of the sport are less important than the history being made by one man so good at what he does that his accomplishments may never be surpassed.
Most of us will never come closer to such athletic achievement than to watch it streamed live on our laptops. But all can appreciate the extraordinary effort required, the hours of practice, the sacrifice and single-minded determination required to be the best at any sport. That is not a lesson of athletics alone but of life: Hard work and focus equals achievement.
There is a tradition at Central Maryland Swim League divisional meets to list the record-holders in each event. The name "M. Phelps" appears frequently in the younger boys age groups (before he switched to more competitive venues). Such is his dominance that it was well-established before he even made it through 3rd grade.
Thus, competitors can hold themselves up to the Michael standard — to his butterfly of age 8 (25 meters in 16.56 seconds) or the breaststroke of 10 (an eye-popping 16.49). Some day, a youngster may even emerge to rival the world's greatest swimmer. Perhaps that person will be standing on the blocks tomorrow. Michael has proven it can happen here.