Imagine a seven-year-old boy, eyes glued to the TV, watching the greatest swimmer of all time in the Olympics. He watches as the swimmer does one stroke after another, barely blinking so he doesn’t miss any move he makes. He is in awe as he makes his way closer to the end. This is the last lap. The excitement builds up. All eight of the swimmers are getting closer. The announcers are screaming. Who will win? Will they break the world record?
Finally, the swimmers reach the wall. The crowd is wild, and the camera focuses on the swimmer looking up expectantly searching for his time. Out of breath, with disbelief in his eyes, the swimmer smiles. “Phelps has done it again!” the excited announcer yells. Michael Phelps has yet another gold medal under his belt. This is unbelievable at his age of 31, which is old by Olympic standards.
The seven-year-old dares to wonder: Can this be me someday? Hesitantly, he speaks the words that have been going through his head:
“Mommy, I think I want to be a swimmer when I grow up.”
If you have been watching the Olympics at your house, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Last week, our family watched as Michael Phelps swam in multiple races, earning five gold medals, two for himself and three for Team USA. We were disappointed to see him finish in second, but, come on, we really shouldn’t be. Earning any medal is a great accomplishment. Phelps has earned 28 medals over five Olympic games. That’s pretty impressive.
As I watched my children somewhat idolize this guy, I wondered how I could make a connection between them and this amazing swimmer. What could I tell them that they could take away and apply in their own lives? Here we have a guy in the spotlight for winning the most medals of all time. He must have done something right. There has to be something we can learn from him. I’m sure there are many lessons we can learn from him, but here are a few that stayed with me.
1. Hard work pays off.
If you haven’t seen Phelps’ recent Under Armor commercial, do yourself a favor and watch it. It paints a picture of his life of training, and it isn’t a very glamorous one. It shows him doing things most of us never think about. He swims day and night, does strength training, eats the right food, sleeps, and swims some more. Repeat. It even highlights the pain he endures in an ice bath, as well as cupping, a therapy for athletes that relieves pain and increases blood flow. Maybe people think athletes just show up and win races, but it’s not that easy. If you want to win, you have to do the work. Anything worth anything in life is going to be hard. Phelps is so good because he does the hard work.
The ad ends with these words: “It’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light.” For Michael Phelps, years of training put him on the podium and earned him gold medals, recognition, and most of all, the satisfaction of being the best at what he did. Our kids may not be Olympic athletes, but they should still work hard for the things they want to accomplish. I want to teach my kids to put time into what they want to do even when it’s hard. Things don’t always come easily. Hard work, dedication, and commitment to something really pay off.
2. Don’t ever give up on yourself.
I’ve done some research on Michael Phelps. He is not perfect by any means, but how many of us are? The difference between him and others is that he didn’t give up. Phelps hit rock bottom, as some athletes do, and took a second chance. As outsiders we can’t possibly know what happens in the lives of athletes. Media paints a pretty picture for us, but it reality, their lives may not be as easy as we might think. They become popular, make a lot of money, and have access to anything they want. There is a lot of room for mistakes. Sadly, Phelps stopped believing in himself and reached this point. After some unfortunate decisions, the most decorated Olympian got a DUI in Sept 2014 and wanted to end his life. By the grace of God and thanks to friend Ray Lewis, Phelps checked into rehab. While there, he soaked up every bit of Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose-Driven Life, a gift from Lewis. He learned there is a power greater than himself and that there is a purpose for him in life. As a Christian myself, I believe God restored his confidence and gave him a new purpose in his life. I’d love to hear him talk about his faith so others can see how God can heal and save anyone, no matter who you are.
After 45 days, Phelps left rehab with a new mindset and motivation. He was determined to train again and compete in the Rio Olympics. He took a chance again. He believed in himself. Guess what? He earned six new medals in Rio!
Let’s teach our kids the importance of not giving up. Our kids will inevitably mess up. They need to know it’s OK to get back up and try again. It’s never too late.
3. Be a nice guy.
Michael Phelps is a nice guy. Really. He is polite, respectful, and always smiling! (OK, there is one exception, but I admire that he didn’t reciprocate the negativity.) Phelps reminds me of our dear San Antonio Spurs. He is confident, yet not arrogant. He compliments others in his sport and can be honest about his successes and downfalls. In the last 10 years he has made time to encourage others in their own swimming careers. I’ve enjoyed seeing photos of Phelps with young swimmers who looked up to him. In one photo, 11-year-old Katie Ledecky, who earned gold in Rio herself, stands happily next to Phelps as he autographs a poster for her. They recently recreated the photo with her autographing one for him, too. In another photo, Phelps poses with a young Joseph Schooling, a young boy from Singapore. No one would have guessed Schooling would beat his childhood hero eight years later. The race in which Phelps got a silver medal last week was the one he lost to Schooling. And yet, after losing to the kid that once looked up to him, a smiling Phelps seemed genuinely happy for him, swimming over to congratulate him. Again, because he is a nice guy.
Kids need to be nice guys like Phelps. I want my kids to be polite and respectful. They need to learn how to be good winners in the good times and good losers when it’s not fun. I want them to be team players, congratulating their friends on their accomplishments, even when their friends do better than they do. I especially want them to be encouragers. If I had to choose between having the kid who won every sport, or having the nice kid who didn’t always win but to whom everyone came for advice and encouragement, I would always choose the nice kid.
This is the type of athlete I like my kids to look up to. Michael Phelps is a nice guy who works hard and doesn’t give up when things aren’t easy. He’s not cocky about the things he’s achieved, even when has every right to be. Phelps says the Rio Olympics will be his last. In recent interviews he has said it’s time to retire and start a new chapter in his life. He is now a dad, and with this new perspective I can see him using his resources to help kids both in and out of the pool. What started as water safety classes for a seven-year-old boy has become an amazing story of hard work, commitment, and love for a sport. These, among others, are the life lessons I’d like my kids to take away from Michael Phelps’ swimming career. What other lessons do you see?