Commentary by Nate Jendrick
The world of swimming has been flipped on its head today with Michael Phelps unofficially being pronounced as “back.” We have no word yet from the man himself, but there’s enough evidence that he’s considering a run for Rio by proof of two anti-doping tests.
Some people say, “Hey, he could only be considering it,” and that’s true. Maybe there’s nothing to this after all. But I can safely say that having to announce every hour of your schedule ahead of time and make yourself available to provide a sample at the unannounced whim of a drug testing agent is enough of a pain that a professional athlete of Michael’s caliber isn’t going to do it for no reason. This isn’t to say his return to the testing pool is the smoking gun we’ve all been waiting for, but let’s just say the barrel sure is hot right now.
But the question is, is this really a surprise? Of course not. Over the last several months there have been signs pointing to this eventually happening, not the least of which is Michael, you know, actually training already. Yes, we all know he swore he was done and that he would be in Rio as nothing more than a spectator, but athletes retiring and returning is nothing new.
Brett Favre, Michael Jordan, Mario Lemieux, even my own wife, Megan Jendrick, have all said they were done and come back in short order. Maybe Michael’s retirement was a little shorter than some, but it was longer than others and we can’t hold it against him. The sport needs him and the world loves him.
There’s no downside to this.
I did hear the argument when rumbles of Phelps’ supposed return first started that it’s, “unfair to other athletes” if he were to get back into competition. I heard this same line of utter nonsense when Dara Torres came back for Beijing.
Listen, I’m all about “fair” in sports. But fair is competing against clean athletes. Fair has nothing to do with someone better than almost everyone else deciding they aren’t done padding their resume. If Phelps still has the goods, and with only just over a year removed from London we have no reason to think otherwise, he should compete as long as he chooses to, even if that means going against his first round of retirement announcements.
So the only question is, why would Phelps want to come back? Could it be for the money? Sure, it could. People say “He has enough money.” But no athlete ever has enough money. You take out Octagon’s 20 percent and then 30 percent in taxes, and even Phelps’ biggest paydays take a massive hit. He isn’t making Peyton Manning type money, so maybe he wants to take wise advantage of this still-prime opportunity to make a substantial income. This is America; if that’s what he wants to do, good for him!
Might boredom have a stake in his return, should he make one? I’d say so, at least a little. Golf is a great game, but when you’re used to the training and competition schedule of swimming, I don’t think it can compare.
Similarly, there’s only so much to do in absolute free time. Michael has been a huge fan of poker for many years and he played this last year in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. He got a taste of that opportunity and got to hang out for a summer, finally, free of an international swim meet. Maybe he just needed that reprieve, to know what it was like to spend his days as he wishes, and then decided he could go a few more years without it.
Next possibility: Could his comeback be for the sake of swimming? Phelps was always very vocal about working hard to raise the profile of the sport. Maybe he doesn’t like where it has gone without him, maybe he feels the progress has stagnated. Knowing he could do more to help it right now, maybe he wants to take that role up again. I only know Michael very casually, but I know he’s a caring and generous guy. I’d buy into this, if this is part of his motivation. I’d applaud him for it, too.
And then, maybe, it’s the competition. Michael has never been one to back down from a challenge (the Athens 200-meter freestyle being a great example; also, sticking with the 400 IM in London). Prior to his unfortunate injury, Michael has surely watched as Ryan Lochte continued to get better and better (and we can hope that will continue upon his return).
He also sees guys like Chad Le Clos make huge strides in butterfly, the stroke that had previously been Phelps’ sole domain prior to that infamous 200-meters in London. An athlete of Michael’s caliber surely has to ask himself now and again, “Could I still do it? Could I beat that guy?”
There’s no doubt in my mind he wants to stand atop the podium, above le Clos, at least one more time. Is that motivation enough to see him take on daily double workouts, agonizing gym sessions, and a schedule that is filled with nothing that doesn’t support elite-level training?
Call me a selfish swim fan, but I sure hope so. Rio is only three years away. There’s plenty of time for golf and poker and sleeping in when you’re too old and your body too out of its prime to be the best in the world. But when you’ve still got–and we know Michael still has it–why not give it one more shot?
Let the Games begin!