Michael Turns 30

by Casey Barrett

Michael Phelps always swore he’d never be swimming at age 30… He is. 

A man’s entitled to change his mind. A kid’s expected to change his mind, plenty. As both a young man and a teenage kid, Michael insisted over and over that you would never catch him on the starting blocks when he was 30 years old. At times he said it with a note of disdain, as if yeah right, I’ll be long gone by then, when I’m, like, old. A few years ago, in the wake of London, he said it with a note of relief. He was sick of the sport in 2012, ready to move on with his life, and he did. Or he tried to. But when you’re the best ever at something it’s not so easy to swim away. You realize the view’s a lot better from the top of a mountain.

And so, Michael Phelps did what most expected him to do. He came back. He picked up where he left off – at the top of the world rankings, the straw that stirs the drink of USA Swimming. His arrest and subsequent suspension for drunk driving last fall left some wondering if the comeback trail would dry up, but in the time since the man has professed to do some soul-searching. According to Bob Bowman (aka the Great & Powerful Oz behind the curtain), he’s also been putting in the work. Something that Bowman hasn’t proclaimed since, oh, around 2008.

It’s been a redemptive few months for Team Phelps. His recent results at the Santa Clara Arena Swim Pro Series were encouraging. His deck side demeanor has been downright jovial. His press conferences on point. It’s all about the love of the sport and the peace of mind these days for Michael, and caps off to that. It feels a far cry from the grumbling put out champion who approached London with a heavy load of obligation. Retiring after the bounty of Beijing was never an option, there was too much riches at stake, but it was apparent that Phelps was going through the motions in that long Olympiad between ’08 and ’12.

He hung it up after that, poured his prodigious competitive energies into poker and golf and Lord knows what else. But he couldn’t keep his eyes off the times. They weren’t getting faster. There was no one stepping up to claim his vacated throne. Sure, Lochte wasn’t going anywhere, and sure Chad Le Clos kept improving thanks to the eternal confidence booster of his Phelps vanquishing in the 200 fly in London. But has there ever been any doubt: Michael on his best day, prepared and focused, beats anyone, ever. He knows that better than anyone. He couldn’t resist.

You wonder how much he’s considered those past comments about not swimming at 30. He said it a lot. It recalled the old hippie battle cry not to trust anyone over 30. It’s an age that will do that to some folks, a number that shakes you up out on the horizon, speaks of an adulthood you don’t quite grasp. He wasn’t alone in being spooked by the big 3-0, he just had more microphones in his face.

Now that it’s past maybe there’s a sigh of silly relief as you realize it was never anything but a number. Maybe there’s a bit of sheepishness as he remembers all the times he scoffed at doing exactly what he’s doing now. There shouldn’t be. He’s doing what he does best, does better than anyone ever before, and if he’s enjoying it then why not do it forever?

There’s a proud romance in going out on top, in your prime, leaving a good looking athletic corpse. Leave that to the romantics in the stands. If you’re a competitor, and that word sums up Michael more than any other, then that just isn’t an option. It wasn’t an option for Jordan or Ali, was it? Those are his contemporaries, icons and ugliness and all. Except Michael isn’t getting hit in the head or beat up in the lane by younger faster opponents. Swimmers have nothing but clear still water before them. If the body and the mind hold up, why can’t they continue into middle age?

So, on the 30th birthday of the GOAT, let’s float a prospect for Mr. Phelps: Never retire. Never acknowledge any last times or swan songs or victory laps. Just keep swimming, as some animated fish once said. 2016 in Rio would be Michael’s 5th Olympics, but why stop there? All the records have already been set, the legacy beyond secured. Why not go for 2020, when he’ll be 35? Why not 2024 – age 39? You don’t think he’ll still be fast enough to swim a key leg on an American relay? What about in 2028 when he’s long past 40?

Duke Kahanamoku, arguably the most admirable swimmer in history, was 21-years-old when he won the 100 freestyle at the 1912 Stockholm Games. Eight years later the Duke won the 100 free a second time on his 30th birthday at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. (He can blame World War I for interrupting the Games and denying him the hat trick…) A few years later at the 1924 Paris Games, he was months shy of 34 when he raced to silver in the same event behind one Johnny Weissmuller. The Duke’s little brother Sam was four-tenths back for the bronze. And swimming was really Duke’s second legacy. This is the guy who, more than anyone else, exported the sport of surfing from his native Hawaii to both the mainland United States and Australia. His legacy as the ultimate aquatic pioneer remains untouched.

The Duke had a great quote that lives on in surfing culture. He said: “Out of water, I am nothing.”

Happy Birthday, Michael.