Last Saturday, as my family pulled into downtown Baltimore on our return from a much-needed vacation, we were greeted by a giant billboard of Michael Phelps, welcoming us back home. It was right in the midst of the Olympics-fervor, and we’d spent nearly every night watching him swim (and win) on TV from our condo, but I wasn’t exactly tired of him yet. I grew up just a block over from Michael, went to school with him from first through twelfth grade, and though I haven’t seen him in person in years, it doesn’t really get old watching someone you knew growing up compete in the Olympic games.
To most people, Michael Phelps is quite simply one of the greatest athletes of all time. In Baltimore, he’s also a hometown hero and down-to-earth guy, who recently said in an interview that he will always call Baltimore his home. The truth is, he could live anywhere, but to me, his unwavering love of our diverse and eclectic city says something special about him. When he burst out laughing during one of the first medal ceremonies, I said out loud to my husband, “Someone must’ve shouted ‘O!’ for the Baltimore Orioles” (like we all do here during the “Oh say does that star spangled banner … ” part of the National anthem). Sure enough, he later confirmed it in an interview — his friends from Baltimore who were in the audience had indeed shouted “O!”
Watching his joy on TV these past few weeks has made me hope that the rumors he’s still the same guy are all true. But to be honest, I’ve always suspected they were. My own experiences with Michael don’t make it too hard to believe.
Back when we were freshman in high school, I shared a class with him. It was freshman Biology, and our teacher was old, and possibly drunk each day. Because of his general absence from teaching, it was kind of a do-it-yourself class, and so Michael and I and a handful of other kids just sat around, copying answers from each other and chatting the period away.
At some point during the year, I can remember there was chatter about the upcoming Olympics the next year (at which Michael would later make his debut when we were sophomores).
“I heard you might get to go,” I asked him. “Is it true?”
At the time, it was nothing more than a rumor going around. Of course, I knew he swam. We talked about it often during class. His hair was bleached and green from the water, and sometimes I’d see him coming into school late, presumably from practice. But it was only then, at the start of the Olympics rumors, that I knew how serious he really was about the sport.
“Maybe, maybe,” was all he’d say at the time, with a kind of sly smile.
Of course it’s possible that he really didn’t know for sure if he’d make it there or not. But watching him win medal after medal all these years later, I have to believe that somehow, he knew.
That word, and that memory, still sticks with me now. How completely unassuming he was; how modest. Most people with that kind of talent would’ve been shouting it from the rooftops, bragging about it left and right. But he stayed quiet, and composed, and he did the work without talking about it — even when he was asked.
Many people I know still see Michael often, but not me. I had kids young and stopped going out downtown with any consistency years ago; but people who’ve seen him out and about over the last several years are happy to boast that he’s basically the same. Maybe a little more cut, well-spoken, and mature, but at his core he’s just a regular dude from Baltimore, who swims really fast and works really hard. I mean, it’s not like he really needs to brag anyway, I guess. No one in the world doesn’t know his name. But still, that kind of modesty is rare, and it’s even more rare for someone with his kind of talent. No matter how many medals he has, to me, his modesty is more important; and I bet it is to the people who really know and love him, too.
I don’t need to believe that Michael Phelps hasn’t changed since he was 15 years old. And at 31, when he throws his hands up in the air after winning yet another race, telling the crowd “let’s hear it!” all I can think of is how much he’s earned the right to the attention, the deafening applause, the autographs, the medals, the money, and the fame. But standing proud in your moment of glory — in all your moments of glory — is something he only could’ve done by keeping his eye on the prize.
Even after all these years, I’m still in awe of the fact that this incredible athlete came from the same neighborhood lined with red-brick row houses that I grew up in, and that my mother still lives in today. Twenty-eight medals later, and I’ll still remember him as the kid who kept his head down, did the work, and only said “maybe.”More On