Superman, unbeatable, the man from the future. This and much more has been said about Michael Phelps during the first week of these Olympic games. I never met Michael, but having lived in Baltimore for the past several years, and being a member of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club last summer, I have enjoyed taking some pride in his amazing accomplishments. Hey, I’ve even eaten at Pete’s Grill, one of his faves.
So, I was especially taken by the Bob Costas interview with Phelps after his 8th gold. Costas is an underrated journalist. He put Bush back on his heels last week, forcing the “backwards flag guy-in-chief” to respond seriously to questions about Georgia and Putin. Anyway, I enjoy watching Costas. Always have.
Still, this interview was special, and here’s my dimestore version of why.
Costas got to the secret behind the Phelps magic. Growing up, Phelps was a target of school bullies. Like Michael Jordan, Phelps takes slights or trash talking as motivation. Unlike Jordan, Phelps shared the psychic scar that helped him develop this skill. The superhero as victim. His ears had been flicked and he had been otherwise taunted like so many kids are. The key was in his response. Phelps channeled the fear, anger and revenge fantasies to the pool. Still does, So when Ian Thorpe said he couldn’t win 7, or when Cavics suggested it would be good for swimming if somebody beat Phelps, Michael used these words, internalizing them, to stoke the competitive fire. He is so good at using his opponents attempt at mind games against them, that he invites the challenge, the insult.
So Costas helped reveal that the Phelps tale is really the “Tao of Being Michael,” being able to reverse the force of the bullies’ taunts. He doesn’t turn the other cheek, doesn’t forget about it. Her uses it. Perhaps he’ll take up ju-jitsu next. He has mastered the philosophy.