RIO DE JANEIRO − Michael Phelps has competed in four Olympics, going back to his debut as a 15-year-old in Sydney. He has won 22 medals, the most of any athlete in the history of the Games. But during all that time, he never took part in the Opening Ceremonies.
That was to change here Friday night when Phelps marches in with the American team for the first time. He was to lead them in as the flag bearer, an honor bestowed on Phelps in a vote of his 554 U.S. teammates.
Phelps hadn’t taken part in the parade of nations until Rio because swimming begins the next day and swim coaches don’t like having their athletes go through the thrilling but lengthy process of marching in an opening. In fact, Phelps hesitated before accepting the honor, and there was a report from USA Today earlier in the day that Phelps would be whisked out of iconic Maracana Stadium soon after leading the Americans in.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Phelps said Wednesday during a swimming news conference. “In the past, I’ve never marched in the Opening Ceremony because I’ve always swum the 400 individual medley on the first day. The opportunity that I have here to carry the flag was too good.”
He asked his long-time coach, Bob Bowman, how taking part would affect him physically. “I said to him, ‘On a scale of one to 10, should I do it or not?’. I said if it’s 8.0, there’s no question that I’ll do it. He said 7.8, which was right on the cusp. I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
Phelps said he got a huge smile on his face when informed he would carry the flag. In a way, he was carrying a peace flag − the peace of mind that he finally found in his personal life after a wildly successful, but often turbulent and tortured, swimming career.
He achieved untold fame and fortune from winning all those medals, 18 of them gold, in his four Olympics. What eluded him was the sense of contentment that comes from being fully realized as a son, father, student and man − and from finally confronting his demons.
In Sydney, he was the youngest American male to compete in the Olympics in 68 years; in Athens, he became an international star by winning eight medals, six gold; in Beijing, he broke Mark Spitz’s record by winning eight golds; in London, he won six more medals, four gold.
But after each Olympics, Phelps drifted into a bad boy party persona. Soon after Athens, he was arrested for DUI. Months after Beijing, a photo of him smoking from a marijuana bong went viral, earning him a three-month suspension from U.S. swimming.
Then, two years after London, he was arrested for DUI and speeding in a tunnel in his native Baltimore. It was a reckless act that could have killed him, or someone else. He pleaded guilty. This time, he got a six-month suspension from swimming that knocked him out of the 2015 worlds.
Shortly after that arrest, Phelps checked himself into a rehabilitation center in Arizona, where he spent six weeks confronting his alcoholic demons, his loss of self-esteem and his fractured relationship with his father, Fred, who had divorced his mother when Phelps was 9.
The six-week stay became a journey of self-evaluation and sobriety. Phelps reconciled with his father and began to rediscover his love for swimming. The fact was, he had come to hate the sport. He later said he had faked his way through London, where Bowman said Phelps’ show of contentment was largely “spin.”
Imagine, winning six golds while going through the motions. Phelps came out of rehab with fresh resolve, determined to go to one more Olympics and truly enjoy it. This past spring, he qualified for his record fifth Olympics and could take away five more medals.
In May, Phelps and his long-time girlfriend, Nicole Johnson, had a baby boy, Boomer Robert. Phelps said being a father was a revelation, an unimaginable feeling of equanimity and joy.
“My emotions will be 10 times what they’ve ever been before,” he said. “I still get pictures from Nicole every day. He’s grown so much every day, his facial expressions are changing so much.”
He has said he has shed the weight of his personal issues and feels like a different person, “maybe nicer.” No matter how many medals he wins here, Phelps, who is expected to swim in the 4x100 freestyle relay on Sunday night, has vowed to enjoy this Olympic experience more than any other.
“It’s given me a clear head in the pool,” said Phelps, who will marry Nicole after Rio. “It’s given me a much clearer head outside the pool in my family life and personal life too. I think I’ve just been able to enjoy life. I’ve been able to experience things I might have taken for granted in the past.
“This ride I’ve been on, I’ll be ever thankful to the people who’ve helped me get through the times when I’ve needed them,” he said. “This has just been the greatest two years of my life and I wouldn’t change it.”
Don’t bet against him. Phelps’ trials times in the 200-meter individual medley and 100-meter butterfly were the second-fastest in the world this year. Bowman, rarely one for overstatement, said he expects Phelps to swim faster in the Games than he did at the U.S. Trials.
In the pool, Phelps will be his typically fierce, competitive self. Out of the water, he promises to stop and smell the flowers this time.
“Before, I would really have my headphones on and not really talk to anybody,” he said. “I’m much more open and relaxed now. I passed” tennis great “Novak Djokovic in the village and I was, ‘Oh, I want a picture’. There are a lot of athletes I’m in awe of and amazed by.”
Phelps was asked if there was any way his final Olympics could be perceived as a failure.
“No,” he said, “because I’m having fun again. I’m enjoying what I’m doing again. I think I’m at the point that, whatever’s left, I’ll be able to turn the page and say I was able to finish the way I wanted to.
“And to me, that’s all that matters.”