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Soup of This Day #372: Just To Make The Good Parts Last

April 15, 2014

Hajós Alfréd Sports Pool
This is an aerial view of Budapest’s Hajós Alfréd Sports Pool. This swimming complex is named for Hajós Alfréd, the 1st swimming champion of the modern Olympics (1896), where, in very cold and rough weather, he won the 100m and 1200m events. It wasn’t just swimming he excelled at either – He was at 1 time Hungary’s national 100m sprint champion. And the 400m hurdles champion. And the discus champion. He also played football for his national team, and upon retirement from playing, was the manager of that same outfit. In 1924 he also won an Olympic medal for architecture, that being his post-sporting career. He in fact designed the above swimming centre that bears his name – Photo: Civertan, 2008. Civertan is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72..

Swimming legend Michael Phelps may be coming out of retirement for the 2016 Olympics. This is significant news – Phelps, aka The Flying Fish, is arguably the greatest male swimmer since Flipper the dolphin.*

Who was fictional and a dolphin.

The Flying Fish by contrast, is very real, albeit barely believable – He’s won an astonishing 57 gold medals across the Olympics, World Champs and Pan-Pacifics. That haul included 6 gold at the 2004 Olympics, a record 8 gold at the 2008 Olympics and 4 gold at the 2012 Olympics. All told, Phelps has won 22 Olympic medals, making him the most decorated Olympian of all time.

And he’s still only 28.

A comeback is definitely on. I can speak with some authority on this, having once retired temporarily from competitive swimming. Sure I was around 11 at the time, but the scene was tough then so I feel like I was justified. The water was cold – Beverley Swimming Pool was an outdoor, unheated model – And people used to shout at me a lot – It was not great for my self-esteem.

So I quit, regaining my afternoons, evenings and the feeling in my extremities. I didn’t recover any self-esteem though, mostly because I’d quit at 1 of the things I was good at. This was particularly rammed home for me when I got dragged from my retirement to compete in a mandatory school carnival and placed 6th in my age bracket for the 50m freestyle.

That result was particularly chastening as I reckon there were only around 7 kids in my age group capable of effectively swimming 50m of freestyle without floundering. I beat 1 of them.

Stung by the realisation that I liked winning more than losing, I got back into training and returned to serious racing in time to sweep the pool in the 13 year-old category. It’s true, I was helped by the fact that at least 1 of my main competitors had left Beverley to go to a high school in Perth, and the other 5 had decided that girls were more interesting than swimming, but I’m content in the magnitude of my achievement.

It wasn’t a fleeting return either – I went on to win the 14s and the 15s – both at Beverley and then in the subsequent inter-school carnivals. All of this though, and there is a warning here for Michael Phelps, meant a lot of hours in water cold enough to make a penguin pause. 1 time the day was so wintry and the water so cold that the coach, who I’ll call Jay, advised the handful of parents who had been cruel enough to bring their kids along, that training should not go ahead on the grounds that hypothermia would surely prevail.

Sadly the club president thought that was being too weak. Even sadder was that the club president was my dad, and so I and 6 other unlucky kids got to do laps around the icebergs. We just about survived, although I had a further trial to face before that day was out.

Dad took off and left me to cycle home.

This was character-defining though and I did get an unexpected fillip from Jay. As I lay on the pool-side concrete, desperately trying to soak up any warmth I could before riding into a stiff gale, Jay ambled past, surreptitiously dropping a lolly bag in front of my iceblock hands. He muttered something about a reward for sticking with it in stupid circumstances and a warning around not telling my dad about the lollies, and then wandered off in search of the other kids. He had a lolly bag for each of them – A sugary apology for the ordeal and a sort of implied criticism of people who make kids swim in Antarctic conditions.

Of course Michael Phelps will have access to better facilities and so his comeback will hopefully be a few degrees warmer than mine. It will most likely be successful too – There are others closer than me to his level that have achieved a great deal ex-retirement. Take Australia’s Libby Trickett – Famous for her brilliant smile as well as her swimming, she has amply demonstrated both across an elite career interrupted by a temporary retirement. She won a bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics but then captured 2 gold, a silver and a bronze at the 2008 edition. This was seemingly enough for Libby and so she retired in late 2009.

And then returned 10 months later, earning a relay team spot for the 2012 Olympics. That was parleyed into yet another gold medal and some even more brilliant smiles.

Or there is Geoff Huegill, aka Skippy. The Australian won silver and bronze in the 2000 Olympics but then slumped into retirement in 2006. This was initially marked by depression, drugs and weight gain before he got his life back together and returned to the pool. There he won national titles and qualified for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, capturing 2 gold and a silver in that competition.

Success for Phelps in this 2nd coming is not guaranteed though – There is the tale of Ian Thorpe to consider…

The Thorpedo was Michael Phelps before Michael Phelps was Michael Phelps, superstar of the pool. A swimmer with freakishly large feet and thus a prodigious kick, Thorpe held the swimming world in his thrall from his peak in 1999 through until 2004. Highlights include the 2000 Olympics, where the Australian thrilled his home crowds, winning 3 gold and 2 silver medals, making him the most successful athlete of those Games.

Better was to follow in the 2001 World Championships, with Thorpe gaining 6 golds and 4 world records. He seemed unbeatable.

By the 2004 Olympics though, Thorpe was waning – Although it wasn't apparent from the raw results – The Thorpedo adding 2 gold, 2 silver and a bronze to his Olympic tally.

That precious metal masked a plateau in performance though – None of Thorpe's times were world records. Perhaps he was becoming jaded – Whatever he was feeling, he took some time off.

It didn't seem to help. Upon his return he struggled to set the kind of times he was accustomed too. A spate of illness and injury further crippled his competitiveness, and by late 2006 he tearfully announced his retirement.

Ian Thorpe though was not done.

He sat out the 2008 Olympics and then in 2011 dramatically announced his intention to compete in the 2012 Olympics. The timing of his career rally though left him with a less than ideal preparation – He had scant time to adjust his body to the rigours of competition.

It showed too.

The Thorpedo struggled in the Australian Olympic Trials. Attempting to qualify for the 100m and 200m relay teams, he started well, clocking a 5th fastest effort in his 1st 200m heat. That though was the high water mark – He faded badly in the semis, finishing well outside the qualifying pack and committing the cardinal tactical sin of posting a slower time than he'd done earlier. At least he'd made the semis in the 200m – In the 100m he couldn't manage even that, and just like that, his comeback was done.

Since then Ian Thorpe has struggled. He once expressed a fear that swimming was his safety blanket, and shorn of that, depression has apparently been a factor. As has alcohol and injury. Currently he is in a Sydney hospital fighting off a serious infection, body and mind seemingly both out of whack.

It's impossible to tell if Thorpe came back too late or shouldn't have come back at all. Maybe he should have put more into his brief media career – He did once front 'Undercover Angels', a reality TV show, loosely modelled on 'Charlie's Angels', wherein Thorpe mentored a trio of young woman doing good deeds.

As it turned out, the best deed they could have done was to quietly kill the show, and give Ian Thorpe a charisma upgrade.

Hopefully Michael Phelps will avoid all of that. Hopefully the Flying Fish will be able to skip across the water again and hopefully he will enjoy it while he can.

Whatever happens, I'd like to think that he, Libby Trickett, Geoff Huegill and Ian Thorpe each have somebody close by who can reward them for sticking with it in sometimes stupid circumstances by giving them a lolly bag.

Thanks Jay.

*Flipper was generally played by female dolphins and ‘his’ characteristic ‘voice’ was apparently obtained from a kookaburra’s cry. Hollywood huh?

Just To Make The Good Parts Last

  1. My mother’s solution to my adversion to water and learning to swim when I was little was to throw me in. I survived…but even after formal swimming lessons it just didn’t hold any appeal to have massive doses of chlorine and god knows what else entering my pores, nose, eyes, etc. When I first started blogging one post was about how I wound up in the hospital just from wading into the Atlantic Ocean. That experience finished off my interest in water aside from bathing. Kudos to Phelps for wanting to do more of what he loves. I just don’t get swimming.

    • Fair enough. I had more than a few years away from the water – A sort of reaction to spending so much time in it as a youngster. Over the past 5 years or so I’ve been back, this time with kids of my own. I’ve learned though – My boys get a heated pool and they get to swim for fun – There’s no pressure on them to achieve targets of any sort. I don’t think they’ll make the Olympics but they seem to be enjoying themselves.

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