Retiring at Age 27

Watching Michael Phelps swim is a joy.  It means watching a being do something that he was meant to do.  Like an otter swimming.  Or a cheetah running.

Phelps’s body is made to swim.  His wingspan is wider than he is tall.  And he is tall, 6’4”.  His shoulders are broad.  His elbows are practically double-jointed.  He was stitched together to be a swimmer, the best Olympic swimmer of all time.  The best Olympian of all time. Have you heard the guy has 22 medals, 18 of them gold?

And he swam his last race yesterday at the age of 27.

Most Americans know this.  There have been countless articles and television specials.  Bob Costas and the swimming commentators (whose names I never remember–is one of them Roddy?) are in love with him, mentioning him every few moments.  NBC also cleverly waited to show Phelps’s final race until 11pm last night.  I cursed them through bleary eyes, but of course I was going to stay up.  It was history.

Why do we care?

He’s one of the greatest athletes of all time.  He has more medals than anyone in history.  And he said he’s done.

Or So He Says Now! scoffed every news outlet ever.

Why don’t people believe him?  He’s been at four Olympics, for goodness sake.  Some athletes don’t want to just fade out, their reputation sullenly growing more and more tarnished.  With our culture’s short-term memory, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past; all that matters is what happened yesterday.

I believe him.  He says he’s done all he hoped.  Sure, he could keep racking up the medals.  Maybe set a few more records.  Maybe keep doing the relays.  But why?  He’s been swimming for his entire life.  He’s in top physical condition, due to countless hours in the gym and the pool.

He probably doesn’t know much else.  For some, that would be a good reason to keep going.  For others, it’s a good reason to stop.

Remember that one DUI and the photo of him with a bong?  Those juvenile lapses seem to show that this kid needs to figure out who he is outside of a pool.  He needs to duck out of the public eye and be a real human being, one who has experiences and makes choices that either hurt him or help him, but don’t cause him to lose sponsors.

I know he’s 27, which means he’s been around the block. He’s had great experiences that most folks will never have.  I’m not oversimplifying things, saying he doesn’t know himself at all.  No one can be that focused, that disciplined and not have a certain maturity and poise.

Even so, I worry about these folks at the Olympics.  The diminutive 16-year-olds on balance beams.  The 17-year-olds diving.  The 20-year-old running.  I remember what I was like when I was 16, and 17, and 20.  I had no idea who I was.  I looked for myself in schoolwork and theatre and youth group, in poker nights and midnight showings.  In my family and away from my family.

Even now, I still wonder who I am and what defines me.  I know in my head what should define me, but I still get lost and a little off-kilter when something goes wrong.

So maybe Michael Phelps won’t race again.  Maybe he’ll travel the world, doing stupid or wonderful things, the things he wasn’t allowed to do while training like diving with sharks or skydiving, or other things that make his mother (already dramatic) fear for his life.

And he’ll probably make huge mistakes, but don’t we all?  Isn’t that part of growing up?  He’s had to be a disciplined adult since he was 14.  I’m not even a disciplined adult now.

But maybe he’ll find himself, a complete definition of himself, beyond “best Olympian ever” or “greatest swimmer in the world.”  Because those are records just begging to be broken, and once they are, he’s going to need other things to fall back on.  I hope he lands on something like being a person of faith, or love, or dedication to others.  I hope he becomes a person better known for his huge heart than his huge wingspan.

Phelps is a young man.  He has a lot of life ahead of him.  He has a lot of time to make himself into a man of good things, a path down which I hope he’s already started–even though right now he’s probably just thinking about traveling through Amsterdam and Paris and South Africa with nothing but world-wide renown and endless energy.

So, Michael, take your retirement.  We’ll carry on without you, with Lochte and Franklin and Adrian to ease our lonely Olympic swimming-starved souls in Rio.  We’ll cheer on others.

Just come back to reality in a few years with few scars borne out of that deferred adolescent idiocy that you’ll likely devote your life to for a time, and with some self-knowledge that will aid you in the next fifty years.

You have done great things; now do greater things.  Good luck leaving that Olympic-sized pool and finding a new purpose in this wide (and often hurting) world. The world needs passionate, disciplined adults to work for the good of others.  I hope you become this, you and every other Olympian hanging up his or her suit, or javelin, or running shoes.  I hope this we all become this, really, we who look at adulthood and wonder if we can be what we hope, what the world expects from us.

And then like Phelps, we just dive right in.

Photo courtesy of


One thought on “Retiring at Age 27

  1. Best analysis of Michael Phelps I’ve read. I’ve actually been annoyed by all the press coverage he’s received, but you give me reason to reconsider my annoyance. Like you, I wonder about those young folks who already have done so much in the world, at least in their athletic disciplines. What comes next? I wonder, though, if we all–no matter our age–continue to wonder who and what defines us. Even though my life is much more stable now than it was in my 20s, I still don’t know for sure by what I should define myself. At any rate, thank you for writing.

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