At the London Olympics this week, American swimmer Michael Phelps won his 19th Olympic medal. With that 19th medal he surpasses the previous record set by Soviet gymnist Larisa Latynina, who won 18 medals across the 1956, 1960 and 1964 games.
Michael Phelps grew up north of Baltimore, MD, in a middle class neighborhood called Rodgers Forge. He started swimming competitively at the age of seven. While other kids were playing non-competitive soccer, where they don’t keep score so no one’s feelings get hurt, and being regular kids in other ways, Michael was starting on the long road that would take him to Olympic glory. By age 10 he was causing a stir in the swimming world.
He trained every single day, many hours per day, going over his strokes time after time to improve his speed. While other kids his age were enjoying candy and being regular kids, Michael Phelps altered his diet so that his body would become a perfect swimming machine.
At the age of 15, while other kids were more concerned with video games and the trivialities of school life, Michael was in Sydney, Australia representing his country in the 2000 Olympics. He was the youngest American male to make the nation’s Olympic swim team in 68 years, and would finish with a fifth place finish in the 200m butterfly.
Four years later, 19-year-old Michael Phelps arrived in Athens, Greece as a marquee swimmer. He would start off those Olympics, which most other kids his age were watching on TV if they were watching at all, with a pair of bronze medals. He would finish those Olympics with six more medals, all of them gold. Michael Phelps left Athens the most dominant swimmer on the planet.
Micheal continued to train and stick to his diet regimen every day for the next four years. In 2008, his extreme hard work and discipline would pay off for himself and his country again. The most decorated American male swimmer in decades would make Beijing his own, dominating the 2008 games even more than he had the 2004 games. He won gold in the 100m butterfly, the 200m butterfly, the 200m freestyle, the 200m individual medley, the 400m individual medley, the 4x100m freestyle relay, the 4×200 freestyle relay, and the 4x100m medley relay. He won eight gold medals in 2008, setting a record for the most gold medals ever won by a single athlete in one games, and just the fifth Olympian ever to win nine overall gold medals.
Between the Olympics, Michael Phelps would set world record after world record, rack up world championships, dominate his sport like no swimmer had ever done before, and all while sticking to his regimen that kept him from living the free life that most American teenagers take for granted.
But through it all, Michael Phelps never lifted a finger to build any of the pools in which he trained. He did not build the North Baltimore Aquatic Club that has been his training home base. He never built any of the roads on which he traveled. He never piloted any of the planes that flew him to his competitions. So according to President Barack Obama, who scolded business leaders that because they didn’t build the roads they use to move their goods they don’t really deserve their success, Michael Phelps’ unprecedented 19 Olympic medals do not entitle him to any special status.
Michael Phelps worked hard, but there are a whole lot of hard working people out there, said the president. Michael Phelps is an intelligent swimmer, but there are a whole lot of smart people out there, said the president.
19-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps, owner of many world records and world championship medals, in the president’s reckoning, doesn’t deserve the title “greatest Olympian ever.” Somebody else made that happen.