New Delhi: Michael Phelps created a flutter each time he stepped in the pool. The spectre of his giant, sculpted frame tearing through the blue, still waters left a lasting impression on the sporting world, as did the sight of him routinely climbing the Olympic podium with a gold medal nonchalantly resting on his massive torso. From Athens to Beijing to London to Rio de Janeiro, the American legend consolidated his cult status in sport's premier spectacle, earning scores of fans and admirers along the way.
Now 33, and having decided to stay out of the pool for good, Phelps showed on Tuesday that he is still the crowd-puller of yore. Agreed, the promotional event of Under Armour " the global sportswear brand of which he is a brand ambassador " was held in Delhi, a city that makes no pretence of its pretentiousness; agreed, that most people who hollered for him did so in their bewilderment and besottment of his celebrity than actually caring for what he did for a living, but to be able to create pandemonium in large parts of this country for anyone other than a cricketer is a feat that's off limits for most sportspersons. On this sunny day though, Phelps shone the brightest and eased into the barely-believable hysteria he espoused. Just another day at work, maybe?
As the spotlight trained itself on the swimming icon and the PR exercise got down to business, one searched for a glimpse of the man behind the hero. Credit to him, Phelps didn't disappoint.
"Yes, I have been out of shape for competition. At the 2012 Olympics, I was not in my best form," he admitted. "It was challenging for me coming after 2008 Olympics and not really having a goal...not finding any motivation after 2012 to train, to perform and do everything... coming back in 2016, it was better."
If one needed to know just how does the proverbial loneliness at the top feels like, this was an example. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, after becoming the only swimmer to win eight gold medals at a single Games, he felt devoid of purpose. It tells us he is human, albeit the fact that he still found enough motivation to win four gold and two silver medals in London 2012 strongly contradicts that claim. A retirement followed at age 26. Two years later, he returned to the sport to take another shot at glory and goldust.
"Stats-wise, 2008 was my best Olympics," he said. "I have to say that it was the greatest Olympics. Also, just the moments and memories of going to Rio and coming back (from retirement), that journey was one of the enjoyable rides for me. I felt like a 16 or 17-year-old kid just enjoying and loving the process. They were both very different and I love both those Olympics just as much."
The swim to success is never easy, and besides demanding its practitioners to squeeze the last semblance of strength from their sinews, it also needs a non-corrosive iron will. Phelps followed a punishing no-rest training regime for six years, and ended it only after he knew he had outgrown it.
"In the sport of swimming, if you miss one day, it takes two days to get back. I spent six years training everyday, and I was getting so much benefit out of that. If you take a Sunday off, you are not back until Tuesday," he explained.
"Now when I get into the pool, I don't have the same feel. So no comeback."
Going back at his mindset during his active years, the 23-time Olympic gold medallist said he hated losing more than he loved winning.
"I hate losing more than anything," he said. "I had no fear. I have had conversations where I am asked what goes through your head when you stand on the block and do the arm-slap. Nothing. Absolutely nothing went through my head. What could go through my head? I can't change how I prepared for that moment, for that race. It is what it is. All I have to do is dive and swim." So much for the Zen and zone talks.
The ace swimmer admitted that he did see fear in the eyes of his opponents, especially while doing his arm-slap routine at the block.
"Yes, I saw fear in opponents' eyes. My arm-slap on the block was intimidating, but it was part of my routine. I didn't think about anyone else, but myself. A lot of people told me that they hated the sound of my arm-slaps, but that's how I got ready for my races."
Message to budding athletes
Asked for a word of advice for the upcoming athletes, Phelps stressed on the need to be persistent and never stop believing.
"Never give up on something you truly love; that is something so important, and that defines my career in a nutshell. It is your dream and if your dream is true you can do anything to make it a reality. When I did my career, it was not easy, it was not fun. But it was something I wanted more than anything and there was no human who could have stopped me from doing something I wanted to do.
"I hope to see a kid out there dreaming of 50 Olympic medals... whatever it is, I hope there is a kid out there thinking about it, training and never giving up that something so important. Listen to your coaches, train hard and see you in Tokyo," he said.