The US Olympic Swimming Trials begin today in Omaha. Missy Franklin, Katie Ledecky, Caeleb Dressel, and many others (1800+) will be competing for 52 spots to go to Rio in six weeks. Among those trying to make the team is Michael Phelps. Should Phelps qualify for Rio, he will become the first American male swimmer to make five Olympic teams.
Phelps is the most accomplished swimmer on the planet. And, yet — or perhaps because of this — he has struggled over these years to find his identity. Phelps has had trouble with alcohol, drug use, and some reckless behavior — and difficulties with trying to live up to a role model status that he has had mixed feelings about.
In a recent New York Times profile, Karen Crouse captures the struggles that Phelps has experienced from a young age when he was asked to sacrifice everything in order to become the best in the world. But Crouse’s piece is not the sad story of “great athlete can’t cope with success.” Rather, Crouse moves us toward identifying a key factor in Phelps’ return to swimming and to a breakthrough beyond winning.
I won’t repeat all that Crouse wrote, but here’s the crux. For true success, our efforts must be tied to authenticity and to a purpose greater than the outcome of a race, a game, or any competitive venture. We often pay lip service to this concept, but Phelps is now actively working towards this.
Phelps has discovered, primarily through rehab, therapy, and self-reflection, that the medals are not enough. He has read Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl and other books that are guiding him towards purpose. He has reconnected with his family of origin. And he has started his own family. Crouse writes: “What on earth is Phelps here for? For starters, he said, to be [Nicole] Johnson’s life mate and his son’s father. To have more medals than any other Olympian? He said he no longer sees that as his sole reason for being.”
Vic Strecher has recently published a book on this topic that I highly recommend — Life on purpose: How living for what matters most changes everything. Strecher writes: “Your life is a boat. You need a rudder. But it doesn’t matter how much wind is in your sails if you’re not steering toward a harbor — an ultimate purpose in your life.”
Phelps wants to swim fast, for sure. But it appears that he is searching for something even greater in his life: a purpose that goes beyond medals. And one that allows him to simultaneously be himself and to go beyond himself. I’m excited to see how Phelps does in these Olympic trials… but moreso in the trials of being a partner, a son, a friend, and as the role model that perhaps will be most important to him: being a father to his new son.