Michael Phelps, Making Swimming Mainstream

By David Rieder

DURHAM, North Carolina, December 2. ON a brisk Friday afternoon in early April, Baltimore, Maryland, was decked out in orange, and the city was buzzing. More than 46,000 people were in process of jamming their way into Oriole Park at Camden Yards for the first home game of the season for the Baltimore Orioles. Every ballpark in the country gets pumped up for the first game of the season, but this day was special for the Orioles. After 14 years of futility, the team had come off a long-awaited winning season and playoff appearance, losing in a deciding fifth game of the American League Championship series to New Yankees. On that opening day, the team would show a montage honoring the 2012 Orioles and the amazing previous year of sports in Baltimore.

I’m not a Baltimore Ravens fan, but I rooted for the team in their AFC Championship win over the New England Patriots and their last-minute Super Bowl victory over the San Francisco 49ers. In that regard, I appreciated the highlights of Joe Flacco, Ray Lewis, and Jacoby Jones along with those of O’s sluggers Adam Jones and Chris Davis blasting home runs. Meanwhile, events emcee Jim Hunter stood on the field that day and told of a third brand of highlights to be seen alongside those of baseball and football. The Orioles honored the 2012 accomplishments of then-recently-retired Baltimore native Michael Phelps.

The Orioles showed video of Phelps winning his four gold medals and two silvers at the London Olympics, along with some video from his previous domination at Olympics and World Championships. The crowd cheered Phelps’ golden swims alongside the most memorable moments from the magical runs of both the Orioles and the Ravens. Phelps, once dubbed the “Baltimore Bullet,” had dominated his sport over such a long stretch, including times when neither the Orioles nor Ravens were contenders, adding his name to the list of Baltimore athletes held in high regard. Phelps succeeded to the point where he transcended swimming; he had become, aside from star football and basketball players, one of the most well-known athletes in America.

For that reason, Phelps’ reported comeback to the sport will help the sport of swimming immensely. He brings focus to the sport unseen during his absence. Sure, many Americans know who Ryan Lochte is, a swimmer similarly versatile to Phelps but usually the runner-up when the pair faced off, while Missy Franklin quickly became a media darling during the London Olympics. Still, it was Phelps gripped his country when he won eight gold medals at the Olympics. Only Phelps brought unheard of levels of media attention to the sport, to the point where his first race after the 2008 Olympics was broadcast live on TV — a preliminary heat at the Charlotte UltraSwim Grand Prix, at that.

Over the past month, swimming headlines appeared on ESPN. Sure, the Worldwide Leader in Sports reported on Lochte’s knee injury back in October, and they’ve posted once or twice about Franklin since this summer as she made the jump into college swimming. Still, when word spread that Phelps had re-entered FINA’s drug testing pool, people noticed swimming and started talking about the sport. Sure, the attention faded pretty quickly, especially with Phelps not yet fully committing to a train for a fifth Olympic bid, but any Phelps news brings swimming, even if for just a brief moment, into the spotlight.

For better or worse, America associates swimming with the name Michael Phelps, and having him competing for the next few years through 2016 will bump up the sport’s exposure drastically. Sure, those competing in his events might miss finish a spot lower, and he may knock a younger rising star off the Olympic team, but having Phelps in the race raises the level of competition and intensity. Phelps brings the spotlight back to the sport, and any media attention to swimming helps grow the sport in both popularity and numbers. For swim fans, though, Phelps brings a level of excitement to racing, a level that those who succeeded him could never quite attain.

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