I have all these thoughts going on in my head about what I should write about. Within the space of a couple of weeks I got to hear two of my (very different) idols speak–Michael Phelps in Pasadena and P.D. James in London. My attendance at one event was very planned (I found out that Michael was speaking in an article online–I think on NBC–and decided to use my SkyMiles to go see him talk). The other was very not planned (I had taken my son on a trip to London to see dear friends and found out that P.D. James just happened! to be speaking! in St. Paul’s Cathedral! and so I brought my son, age 10, and he was an angel).
Both events were fantastic, and very different. P.D. James is an author in her nineties. Michael Phelps is an athlete in his twenties. They had different things to say about life and their work, different perspectives.
But they were both very matter-of-fact in that the work is hard, and you do it anyway. It was inspiration I needed very much.
I’ll write more about what P.D. James said in another post (she had some thoughts on faith and writing that I found absolutely fascinating) but I thought I should write down some of what I learned from Michael as well.
Sometimes I have a hard time explaining to people why I like Michael Phelps so much. I mean, he’s extremely likable and the greatest Olympian of all time, but I’m not a swimmer. And I don’t have a crush on him in a physical sense (although his body is amazing–like a piece of art). I love seeing his sisters and his mom cheer for him. Now that I’m a mom, watching the parents at the Olympics is almost as fun as watching the athletes. There are sacrifices made and supports that we, as parents observing, both can and can’t imagine.
Of course, we can never truly know another person’s story. Or another family’s story. But oh, what a ride Michael and his family have given us.
Remember in Athens, when the media realized that he had qualified in eight (!) events and was a contender to win a medal in all those events? And some of the media decided that–since he didn’t win gold in all eight and didn’t break Mark Spitz’s record (he “only” won gold in six)–he was a “failure”? I remember that kid. I remember how he was only 19 and darling and when he took bronze in his second race and people said, “The run is over,” he didn’t care. He just kept swimming his heart out and won five more golds and another bronze. By any measure, a success. He talked about this in CA–he said that when the media kept asking him how it felt to fail, he kept thinking, “I don’t feel like a failure.”
He certainly wasn’t a failure, and he went home and worked hard every day for four more years. And then he came back in Beijing and put any questions about failure or anything else to rest. 8 golds. Perfect. And wow, the focus in those days that we saw from him. I have never seen such intensity on someone’s face. What we didn’t see was all those years, every morning, when the alarm went off and he got up. In eight years, he took two days off. One day to get his wisdom teeth out, one day for wrist surgery. That’s it.
And then came London. I can’t get over London. I made a schedule of all his events so that I could watch them live online in addition to later at night. When he failed to medal in the 400IM I thought I would throw up. His face–the exhausted devastation. Well. We all know how it ended. He came back for more individual and team golds and left the meet as the most decorated Olympian of all time. The dignity he showed in defeat, and the gift he gave us all of seeing him come back and swim and be human–which he always was, even when he performed that superhuman feat in Beijing–was something I’ll never forget. Watching him in London was a perfect story arc–in being imperfect, but still wonderful, he showed us how you get back up and go for gold again, and again, even when people declare that you’re done. He knew that he wasn’t.
In Pasadena, someone asked him how he got motivated through his 20 years of swimming, how he kept going through all those days and all those workouts. I’ve seen him on TV when they’ve asked this question before, and he answered it in person just as simply as he always has on television, “I wanted it.” He said that yes, he got tired, and yes, he didn’t want to go in sometimes, but he always wanted his goal more.
That is the key to me, right there. How much do I want my goal? People ask about how I wrote my books and the answer is simple. I wanted to write a book more than I wanted lots of other things. Sleep, watching movies, running, reading, going out with friends, having a clean house, etc. And some days, when I find myself messing around on Pinterest or reading blogs instead of working, I think of Michael Phelps. Do I want it, or don’t I?
And that is what I like about Michael so much. He had the strength and dedication to write his story–both when no one was watching and when everyone was.