For Love and Hate

by Casey Barrett

Coughlin and Phelps – A Contrast in Outlooks

It gets old. It does for everyone. The mornings, rising before dawn isn’t fun, never is. Being sore all the time for years on end, I don’t miss that. The ever-present pressure, the cloud that follows you, forever questioning your every move, whether this decision or that will help you be at your best. One can understand the longing to escape.

It’s a seldom reported side to the supposed glory of the Games: Many athletes, the ones nearing the end, just can’t wait to get away.

That’s why you hear the stories of swimmers who retire and choose to stay dry – for years. Those swimmed-out souls whose only contact with water is the shower after they’ve swum their final race… It seems Michael Phelps is among this disgruntled group.

Today on, Rick Reilly wrote a piece that led off like this: “Michael Phelps can’t wait for these coming Olympics — to end.”

It went on to detail how much Phelps truly dislikes the water, how for all his world travels, he hasn’t seen much of anything, how he just wants to get out of the pool and on to the golf course. Take a look. Reilly was sympathetic to Michael’s “plight”, even if he clearly doesn’t get it. For those that do, the empathy might be a little harder to come by. On the one hand, there’s burnout. Fair enough, every swimmer can relate. But on the other there’s perspective. Like the kind expressed by Natalie Coughlin…

Right next to that Phelps piece, ran a story entitled “Coughlin’s run a bit under radar.” It revealed a very different mindset, from a swimmer who’s been there every step of the way with Phelps; their careers have unfolded almost exactly in parallel. For the last decade, Natalie Coughlin has been America’s premier female swimmer. While her aquatic achievements aren’t quite Phelpsian (no one’s are), she has steadily compiled one of the greatest careers in Olympic history. Indeed, if she has another standout Games in London, Coughlin will go down as the most decorated female athlete in U.S. Olympic history. She has eleven medals now, just one behind Jenny Thompson. If she wins two in London, she’ll be second in total medals only to Phelps, and first among all U.S. women in any sport.

While their careers have followed the same current, it’s clear that their present outlooks could not be more different. Phelps told Rick Reilly that he’s so sick of the water that when he goes to the beach, he doesn’t even want to get in. Consider that for a second. It’s more than a little depressing to read that the greatest swimmer in the history of the world hates to be in water. So much so that the thought of diving through the waves on a hot summer’s day repels him.

Now contrast that with Coughlin’s comments about her career as a swimmer. A click away on ESPN today, here’s what she had to say: “I love the entire process. I love the day-to-day. As much as I hate being tired all the time, I love pushing myself in training and I love being outdoors. As I get older, I realize more and more of my friends have to sit in an office, in a cubicle. I get to watch the sun rise, I get to travel the world and take care of my body and that’s my job. That’s really cool. That alone keeps me going.”

As I was saying, there’s burnout, and then there’s perspective. It might suck to wake up at 5am most days, it might be a bummer to fly across the world all the time and see very little, but does it suck as much as being chained to a cubicle? Earning enough to be well ensconced in the 1% while getting paid to swim?

This is not meant to bash Phelps’s current outlook. Beyond the endless training, the guy has had to shoulder the weight of the sport for years now. That’s a hell of a burden. Plenty of folks will say: ‘well, then why didn’t he just retire after Beijing and be done with it?’ Like it was that easy… That wasn’t an option. Not for a guy who’s spoken so much of wanting to ‘change the sport’, of wanting to elevate it and bring it to the masses.

Those are the words of an ambassador. By definition: “a person who acts as a representative or promoter of a specified activity.”

It might take some dry years away, but here’s hoping the love will return someday. Because, as Natalie Coughlin still appreciates, that specified activity is a very beautiful thing indeed.