What were you thinking last night, when you stood atop the podium for the final time in your historic Olympic career?
I was thinking about you. And me.
In Sydney we were both kids. At fifteen, you were the youngest man to make the U.S. Olympic Swim Team in sixty-eight years. You didn’t medal, but that didn’t matter. I was nineteen and had just finished up my first year at Penn State. I was spending the summer serving soft serve ice cream to earn a few bucks before going back to school and writing a novella about the exploits of my friends, which included spending hours on hold to get on the local radio station, and wading through the moat at the miniature golf course to find our wayward balls.
We were both freshman brimming with potential. But perhaps only one of us was a teenage phenom.
Back then, neither of us knew that anyone would ever win eight gold medals in a single Olympics, or fly a plane into the World Trade Center, or wait in line at midnight dressed like a wizard to buy the latest installment of Harry Potter.
In Athens you began fulfilling your destiny by winning medals in each of your eight races. Six of those medals were gold. You were still a kid, and so was I, glued to the television set in my parent’s living room as you held up your medals wearing the laurel wreath of victory. You looked like the Greek God of Swimming, and there’s no doubt now that you are. I was thrilled to be working at my first “real job” after college, using my degree and looking to move into my own place.
Everybody in the world knew you in Beijing. You’d fulfilled your destiny: greatest swimmer of all time. You transcended your sport. No one had ever done anything as well as you swam in Beijing. Eight races, eight gold medals. A record that is unlikely ever to be broken. You became a household name, known even to people who paid no attention to the Olympics (It’s hard to believe, but yes, such people exist.) The media reported on everything—your legendary training program, the thousands of calories you consumed each day to fuel that long, lean dolphin body. Your mom became almost as famous as you, as the camera flashed to her jumping and cheering after your every win.
I think you were disappointed in London. It’s hard to consider seven medals a disappointment, but two were silver and you finished fourth in the 400 meter individual medley. A supreme accomplishment for anyone in the world, unless they were comparing it to what you had done in Beijing. It looked like you were going to hang it up. No one would’ve blamed you, no one could’ve asked anything more from you.
But you weren’t done. You took some time off, got into a little trouble, then got out of it. And you came back for one last meet. You thrilled in Rio, capturing even more records. Tweny-three gold medals. You recaptured your 200 meter butterfly title. You won the same event in four straight Olympics. At thirty-one, you became the oldest person to win an individual gold swimming medal.
Thirty-one might be old in swimming, but it isn’t old in life. Still, watching your fiancé and baby son cheer you on made me realize you aren’t a kid anymore. And that means neither am I.
We’ve grown up together, you and I, meeting once every four years through the blue light of the television screen.
Now it’s time to say goodbye.
Thanks for the memories.