Michael Phelps – Growing Greatness

SFME’s Thomas Wragg had the pleasure of meeting the prolific gold medal winner Michael Phelps as the swimming legend shared his thoughts on today’s sporting world, THAT tweet to Conor McGregor and how hard work and dedication behind closed doors is key to becoming the world’s best.

Twenty years of gruelling training in the pool and gym saw Michael Phelps become the most decorated Olympian in history with 28 Olympic medals to his name. The American’s
first Olympics came in Sydney in 2000 and at the age of just 15, he became the youngest male to make the US swim team in 68 years. He missed out on a medal at his first Games but it would be the start of a truly remarkable story of Olympic greatness. Four more Games and countless world records followed before Phelps decided to finally hang up
his suit for good after the 2016 Games in Rio where he came out of retirement to add another five gold medals to his staggering haul.

SFME: In sport in general there have been many retirements recently and a succession of top athletes are nearing retirement, do you think sport is heading for a bit of a lull?
Michael Phelps: In my generation, I’ve been lucky enough to see the best athletes in their respective sports, and right now the best of the best are crushing records. In some sports I see that kids aren’t hungry for success; they want to go out and do different things. For me, the most frustrating thing I see in swimming is that some people seem to feel they deserve to be given something, instead of working at it and that bothers me because I know how hard it is to get to the top. I just hope in the next couple of years we will have people who will emerge. I believe there are athletes out there that who are hungry enough and, hopefully, they are doing it the right way as the doping situation needs to change as well.

SFME: How did you prepare for Rio 2016 after coming out of retirement?
MP: When I came back for Rio I knew that I had to do it the perfect way. I couldn’t skip what I wanted to skip. I had to listen to my coach and I didn’t want to have a ‘what if’ moment 20 years later. I knew my coach had got me everywhere I wanted to go in the past, so I trusted him totally. The first six weeks were the hardest. I had just come out of retirement and I was overweight. I lost about 30lbs in the following weeks, which really enabled me to get back into my training environment. I trained perfectly. My body was as fit as it’s ever been in my life. Those last two years were the most enjoyable of my career. The Olympics in Rio was definitely the happiest I’ve ever been. I did what I wanted to do and finished on my terms.

SFME: What did you do in training that gave you an advantage over other competitors?
MP: My coach had this idea of training every single day and he explained to me why we
were doing it. In professional sport, so many people take one day off and it takes them two days to get back to where they were. I wanted to be a step ahead of everybody else because they weren’t training on Sunday or on holidays, so for me every single year I had
more than 52 extra training days than the others. To get to where I wanted to be it was easy for me to make that sacrifice and go under the water on Christmas morning before we
opened our presents, or on my birthday when I would rather not be doing anything.

SFME: You did an Under Armor commercial that showed that grueling training regime with the tagline ‘It’s what you do in the dark that puts you into the light’ – talk us through that?
MP: That commercial was a little taste of what I had to go through over 20 years. I had the opportunity to do what nobody else has ever done, that’s something that excited me. For me, it was easy to sacrifice certain things. It’s true in every walk of life, we’re all working hard at our goal to be happy and a lot of people don’t really see what we do behind closed doors. Once we accomplish that goal then other people around you can see what you were working so hard towards. I have a saying that the difference between good and great is the people who are great will do things when they don’t always want to. I had goals that I wanted to accomplish and I was hard on myself, so I forced myself during those days because I knew I wanted to accomplish my goal and that helped me.

SFME: How did it feel leading your country out at the Rio Olympics?
MP: Holding that flag in my last Olympics was amazing. I never thought my peers
would vote for me because I was very quiet during my Olympic career. I was always
focused on my own mission. At Rio, I felt more like a father-figure in the camp. I had kids on the team who would come up and say that they had posters on their wall of me, which made me feel that part of my goal to get kids involved in the sport had been achieved. I was just so happy in Rio, especially having my son and wife in the stands.

SFME: How has fatherhood changed you?
MP: How much time do you have? I never had a father around when I was a kid, so to
become a father was something that I will never forget. That moment when my son was
born I just felt such a rush of emotions in my body and it’s the coolest thing in the world.

SFME: Do you think anyone will overtake your medal haul?
MP: I don’t know. A lot of people thought what I achieved was impossible. If there’s a kid out there who is truly willing to dream so big that it would shock them, then anything is possible. Records are always meant to be broken and I really hope there is a little kid out there who can do it and believe they can do it. Big things are happening in sport and I’d love to see someone break my record in my lifetime.

SFME: What advice would you give to any kids looking to dream big?
MP: When I was growing up my coach took the word ‘can’t’ out of my vocabulary. As soon as you say ‘can’t’ do something then you may as well quit as you already have it in your
head that it’s not possible.The only thing we aren’t going to be able do is fly. With sacrifice
and hard work and I believe anything is impossible.

SFME: You challenged Conor McGregor to a swimming race in a tweet, is that a possibility?
MP: Everyone kept tweeting this photo so I tweeted him as a joke. If he wants to swim, I don’t care. I’ll race him. If we did it in a year, and I trained for a year, or even six months, I could probably go 48 seconds if I had to. I don’t see him breaking a minute. So I could probably beat him with a 50 metre head start. I would definitely exercise the option to have a conversation if he wanted to swim.

SFME: At London 2012 you weren’t at the top of your game so how much of an athlete is made up of training and how much is natural ability?
MP: Honestly, I’ve seen swimmers who have won Olympic medals based on hard work and what’s between their ears. Your mental game at that level is so important and that’s where you see the real athletes who are ready to perform and can handle anything. I worked on every aspect of my game since I was 11 and visualising everything that could happen in a race.

In 2008 I swam a race blind and broke a world record when my goggles were full of water. In Rio my cap ripped right before I got to the block. I knew I couldn’t represent someone else’s name so I had to flip it inside out. You have to be mentally prepared for those moments. If one thing goes wrong and you’re not ready then you’ve wasted four years of hard training. It takes the whole package to be great and to be able to win races and break world records. You have to sacrifice certain things and some people are scared of that but to be at the top you need everything, I had the talent to swim but I had to work hard and
capitalise on the other things.