But we also know the lane that he has followed has not always been smooth and clear blue. He has reportedly given up the drinking habit that caused him to be charged twice in Maryland for driving under the influence. He has a son, Boomer Robert Phelps, born in May. He is engaged to be married to Nicole Johnson after the Olympics. He seems motivated to compete in ways he wasn't prior to London in 2012, and he claims to have found joy in training — those long, lonely, grinding hours of laps and dry land conditioning — that wasn't always there in the past.
Considering it was his second DUI arrest (having received his first in Salisbury at age 19), he got off pretty lightly two years ago — a one-year suspended sentence and 18 months probation. But it appears the treatment served him well. In interviews, he comes across as focused and happy, not just the overgrown, somewhat aimless man-boy caught up in his own celebrity of a few years ago. How many other young men have followed a similar route (well, perhaps minus the celebrity and 22 Olympic medals)? How many of us have been trapped in an eddy of our own making?
Sports legends aren't heroes. From O.J. Simpson to Tonya Harding, the folly of worshipping athletes is surely a lesson 21st century Americans have learned too often to fall for again. Yet rooting for a flawed human being seeking redemption — or at least one more shot at glory? That's a story line worthy of Shakespeare because it captures the foibles and not just the mythology of being the "greatest" in the world at anything. Meanwhile, Marylanders might want to take note of another local competitor who will be with Michael in Rio — a 19-year-old up-and-comer from Bethesda named Katie Ledecky who won her first Olympic gold medal in 2012 and may be headed for more, a lot more. Some are even saying she may be the greatest swimmer and perhaps top female athlete in the world.
Before she leaves Rio, Ms. Ledecky ought to have a chat with that older fellow from down the road. He might have some cautionary advice to share.