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personal idols: michael phelps

The best photo I got of Michael in Pasadena...wish I hadn't forgotten the good camera!

The best photo I got of Michael in Pasadena…wish I hadn’t forgotten the good camera!

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.




+ comments (7)
  • Audra
    June 13, 2013

    Boy did I need this post in my life right now! I don’t want to turn into a rambling ugly crying mess in your blog comments, but thank you for posting about this, and for continuing to inspire!



  • Rosemary
    June 13, 2013

    Great insights Ally! It is so easy to get distracted from the things that matter most to us. Thanks for the inspiration. Miss you!



  • Shar
    June 14, 2013

    wow. thanks for sharing this, ally. definitely something i need to think about. do i want it or not? i have such a hard time because in the moment, when it’s time to sit down and write, i don’t. i’m tired and i would rather be lazy and go to sleep or be lazy and watch a movie or be lazy and fold laundry. but then i get upset with myself because i’m not accomplishing anything with those tasks.

    so basically i need to put in the hard work.

    i’m glad you got to see and hear your personal heroes. it’s such an awesome thing to get to have them be in the same room with you.



  • Amy Finnegan
    June 20, 2013

    Wow, Ally. Thanks for putting so much into perspective for me. A truly brilliant post. I feel like I just got my butt kicked in a very good way.



  • Tiffany Lewis
    July 1, 2013

    This is fantastic! Thank you for the reminder that there is no magic bullet, no superpower, only grit and hard work, any anything, in everything.



  • Jessica Symons
    July 2, 2013

    ! just discovered you! I also have 2 boys (age 10 and 8) and I think they would really like your books. But having girls in dresses on the cover might put them off a bit!! Keep up the great work – we need more gender neutral books which do not focus on violence…



  • Annie
    July 5, 2013

    This was so inspiring! Especially wanting “it” more than a “clean house”! I just moved, and I haven’t worked on my jewelry in AGES.. I’ve been cleaning, and organizing, and just generally doing everything BUT the things that I really want.. studying literature and creative writing and making tons and tons of jewelry. Your post helped to put things into perspective.




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