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Sally Jenkins: We Shouldn't Be Surprised That a World-Class Athlete Such as Michael Phelps Occasionally Slips Up

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By Sally Jenkins
Tuesday, February 3, 2009

So Michael Phelps dove headfirst into the bong water. Is anyone really surprised, after all those laps? There has always been something submerged and escapist about the world's greatest swimmer. When presented with a chamber containing a hazy translucent liquid, he did what's become second nature to him. He buried his face in it.

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I'm just sorry I wasn't at that University of South Carolina house party to witness Squid Boy's binge firsthand -- not that I would ever make such a staggering misstep myself.

According to the British tabloid News of the World, which ran a photo of Phelps hunched over a glass tube and torching it up quite proficiently with a lighter, he "was out of control from the moment he got there." Can you imagine how much dew he inhaled, with his world-class lung capacity? I don't know exactly what kind of killer nuggets were stuffed into the bowl of that German-made red Roor bong -- why should I know such a thing, or even how to use a lighter -- but they weren't cloves.

I'm sure some people will be disappointed in Phelps for partaking of a non-government-approved substance for relaxation. But he merely got caught doing what scores of people -- I'm not saying me -- did every weekend in college, and what many residents of Austin still do every day, given the quite liberal sentencing laws, which I only know about secondhand. According to a study cited in U.S. News & World Report last summer, 42 percent of Americans have at one time or another gotten sweetly baked on hay. No one is condoning illegal activity -- or admitting any. But frankly, it's better than drinking and driving, which is what Phelps did last time. And it's organic!

"I'm 23 years old, and despite the successes I have had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner that people have come to expect from me," Phelps said in a statement. "For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public -- it will not happen again."

Or, as David St. Hubbins says in "This Is Spinal Tap," "I'm sure I would be more upset if I wasn't so heavily sedated."

We already knew that when Phelps breaks training, he means business. After he won six gold medals at the 2004 Athens Games, he was caught driving under the influence after a party in Maryland. When he's in his competitive season, he swims for five hours a day, every day, 50 miles of laps in a week. When he's on vacation -- well. What did we think he was going to binge on this time, after winning an all-time-record eight gold medals in Beijing? Triscuits?

That phrase Phelps used, "people have come to expect from me," is an interesting one. It points to an emerging fact about Phelps, which is that there are two versions of him: the obedient Olympic champion who says and does what's expected of him and the caught-red-handed whiffer, who does the precise opposite, inadvertently countermanding the purist image built by his commercial sponsors. Obviously, Phelps doesn't whiff all the time, or he wouldn't win the way he does. Nevertheless, you get the sense that Phelps periodically needs to bust out of the confines of the pool and of his too-coy image.

There's clearly a more genuine and, um, adventurous Phelps than the one he presents. Like most great athletes, he's a creature of extremes, which is a quality egregiously unhealthy corporate sponsors such as Kellogg's and McDonald's don't really like to admit to in their athlete-pitchmen. But maybe it's one more parents should realize is part of the potential cost when their kid announces they want to be a gold medalist like Michael Phelps. Being a champion is frankly not the most healthful career to aspire to; it's an abnormally stressful one.

Champions tend to develop out of a state of emotional emergency. Winning is a need. Their training methods are extreme, their goals are extreme and their rewards tend to be extreme. Lance Armstrong is driven by a fatherless childhood, and after the Tour de France he consumes quite epic amounts of beer and ice cream, sometimes together. I once watched Andre Agassi drink an entire bottle of Chianti -- at lunch. Pete Sampras rewarded himself for winning the U.S. Open by gorging on steak until he almost vomited. Phelps is driven partly by a case of boyhood ADHD. One thing we know about him is that his surface opacity, the phlegmatic, almost placid exterior hides a different person beneath the water, a bottomlessly ambitious competitor. As his mother once said, "Under the water there is another level of Michael."

Phelps's public apology won't satisfy those people who insist their champions be superhuman ideals. But it's absurd to expect Phelps to maintain his brand of physical and mental discipline 24-7, while the rest of us privately anesthetize to our hearts' content. Maybe it was those very people Phelps wanted to get off his back when he went to a college house party in South Carolina, while visiting a girlfriend. So he sampled the local product, perhaps it was Spanish Trampoline, or Mexibrick, terms which I only picked up on the Internet, and then he probably indulged a late-night craving for frozen waffles and Skittles.

Fortunately, Phelps won't face official sanctions. If you want to feel stoned, consider the fact that the draconian World Anti-Doping Agency doesn't penalize out-of-competition recreational drug use, but gives years-long bans for accidental ingestion of over-the-counter meds in season. He shouldn't face the loss of endorsements, either. All he did was behave in an unmeasured and uncalculated way and suffer the bad luck to be photographed doing it. He's already enjoying a fitting punishment: public embarrassment for failing to live up to his commercial pretensions. For one thing, he's being made merciless fun of on the Internet. A wit named Gourmet Spud posted this sendup of his autobiography on Deadspin: "From Breaststrokes to Breasts-Tokes: How I Spent My Summer Olympics Vacation" by Michael Phelps.

Another suggested he get a Grateful Dead tattoo on his thigh. And perhaps sign up some new endorsements more in line with his recreational side. Like Doritos, and Taco Bell. Not that I've tasted them late at night after a party.


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