Saying Goodbye

Like many Americans, and even swimming fans around the world, I have measured today by the hours remaining until Michael Phelps’ final race. And, like many of his fans I imagine, I have been feeling nostalgic and a little bit sad at the prospect of saying goodbye.

In 2000 I was still a college student, watching the Sydney Olympics from my dorm room while I planned Ryan’s and my wedding for the following spring. This was the only Olympics he participated in that did not see Michael Phelps on the podium following a race, but he did make it to the finals, and the world was introduced to the 15-year-old phenom.

I don’t have a lot of memories of the 2004 Athens Olympics, probably because I was an exhausted mother of a newborn and a toddler, and we were all still settling into our new apartment following a move from Green Bay, WI, to St. Louis. One of the few memories I do have, however, is seeing Michael Phelps on top of the podium, more than once, wearing a gold medal around his neck and the olive wreath that was a signature of those Games crowning his head.

2008 was the first summer that we had children old enough to really enjoy the Olympics, and we all loved watching Michael Phelps on his historic quest to win eight gold medals in a single Olympics. Because of the late night swims, however, I was the only awake when he achieved that goal, and I remember jumping up and down and screaming along with Rowdy Gaines on TV, and hoping I didn’t wake up any of the sleeping members of my family.

The 2012 Olympics were, of course, my favorite to date, and again we watched Michael Phelps make history, this time as the most decorated Olympic athlete in history, as again we had a baby just past the newborn stage in the house. He said he was retiring after those games, but like Rowdy Gaines, I was skeptical, as it seemed he had unfinished business in the pool, and no one was happier than I was when Rowdy was proved right!

And now in 2016, our whole family has watched almost everything, from the trials in July where he reached his goal of competing in a fifth straight Summer Games, and again we’ve cheered and screamed and jumped up and down as Michael Phelps has continued to make history and set records, as an athlete who has won the gold medal for the same event in four straight Olympic Games, and has even broken a 2,000 year old record for the most individual Olympic titles. We’ve loved the backstage drama and the now-famous Phelps Face, and his obvious pure enjoyment at competing in his fifth straight Olympic Games, from the moment he carried in the US flag at the Opening Ceremony until today.

In a curious sort of way, I feel like the final chapter of whatever was left of my youth is being ended as Michael Phelps prepares to step out of the pool and (hopefully) onto the podium for the final time. Just as he is closing the door on the part of his life where he was an Olympic athlete, I’m looking back over those same 16 years, and realizing that my days of being a young wife, new mother, and mother of young children has come to an end as well.

Would I be shocked to see Michael Phelps come back in four years to swim at the Tokyo Olympics? No. I don’t even understand how, when you’re the greatest in the world at something, you’re able to walk away from it. But I also don’t expect to see him back. While he may have claimed to have swum his final race in London four years ago, he seems different now. There is a maturity and peace about him that he didn’t have before, and he is clearly a man happy and content with his personal life, and ready to settle down and spend time with his family. And while I’m very sad to say goodbye to the thrilling days of watching him swim at Nationals and Worlds and Olympics and every meet in between, I’m extremely happy that he seems to be exactly where he wants to be in life!

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