Phelps a study in physical, mental toughness

Photo Michael Phelps celebrates after winning the finals for the mens 100m butterfly at the National Aquatics Center during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
(Jerry Lai-US Presswire)

Editor’s note: Michael Phelps’ eight gold medals in Beijing is Yahoo! Sports’ choice for 2008 sports story of the year.

Swimming wasn’t their thing. It wasn’t anyone’s thing, though.

“A once-every-four-year sport,” is how Michael Phelps himself described it. He was probably being generous. Every time the Summer Olympics rolled around, swimming entered the sporting consciousness, but only for a few days.

Other than the proverbial women’s swimmer turned pin-up girl, its impact tended to die in the wake of the final lap.

At a superficial level, swimming is a simple sport to understand – jump in the water and beat the other guy to the wall. The intricacies of how that is accomplished, how speed is maximized, how core strength is developed, don’t have to be understood to follow a race.

Yet Americans remained ambivalent until Michael Phelps showed up in a giant blue cube of an aquatics center just north of downtown Beijing last August and claimed he was going to capture a record eight gold medals. Then he proceeded to collect them, one after the other, right in primetime in America.

That’s what got a lot of people who claimed swimming wasn’t their thing to start watching and, most importantly, wondering.

That’s what got Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and some of the other greatest, richest and most famous basketball players in the world to turn out on a Sunday morning to watch a swim race.

“Phelpsian” has entered the sporting vocabulary, not so much because of the number of golds he had hung from his neck, but for the crossover respect of how it was accomplished.

Bryant and James and every other star athlete and studious coach around the globe didn’t need to understand lap counts or lactate levels to want to understand how Michael Phelps got so mentally tough. They wanted to know whether they could duplicate it.

“It was just awesome to see,” Bryant said of witnessing Phelps in person. “It was incredible.”

Phelps didn’t just turn the world onto swimming. He turned a fairly dull swimmer into the most intriguing athlete on the globe.

Whether your competitive pursuit is basketball, baseball or business, there was something to marvel at with Phelps. He was clearly the most physically gifted, but he needed to find a way to deliver that every time in 17 swims over nine days.

Waiting to dethrone him was the rest of the world. To beat Phelps once was more valuable than winning gold in any event he wasn’t in. The second most famous swimmer to emerge from the Games was Milorad Cavic, a Californian competing for Serbia, who lost by 0.01 in the 100-meter butterfly.

In each event, Phelps had to hold off the best specialist in the world. That guy could train and focus on beating Phelps. Phelps had to match it, then come back, sometimes on the same day, and match it again. Only this time he had to match it against a different guy with the same focus on a singular victory that the last guy had. And the next guy would. And the next after that.

It was like a boxing match with a new opponent every round.

That’s what inspired Kobe and LeBron and the rest. That’s what got them into the water cube, cheering like crazed fans but looking for a chance to compare notes with Phelps later.

Phelps had become so tough through years and years of often mundane training. Swimming isn’t a glory sport. It’s back and forth and back and forth, often early in the morning, indoors, cold or hot, winter or summer.

Every sport requires grunt work, but this isn’t practicing golf or playing hoops. This is lap after muscle-burning lap. There are no crowds. You’re always wet.

Phelps had been a prodigy growing up in suburban Baltimore. He had the perfect swimmers physique and could always beat his peers with ease. He won six gold medals at the Athens Olympics four years ago.

It was then that he and his coach embarked on a grand plan to go for eight, besting Mark Spitz who won seven in swimming at the 1972 Games. They aspired to ridiculous times, ones that could only be accomplished with years of intensive training and massive sacrifice.

It wasn’t so much the speed they were going for. It was the fact that by surviving the training Phelps would be so hardened, so strong, so unbreakable in will that he could manage this Beijing marathon.

And he did; one event after the other, one day after the next. There were close calls and easy glides, individual victories and relay excitement.

Swim after swim, challenge after challenge, time after time, he didn’t just win the world’s attention he won the world’s best athlete’s admiration. There was Kobe and LeBron, not just cheering, not just watching, but trying to learn from Michael Phelps, a swimmer teaching all of them about toughness.