At 34, the seminal “where were you when…” moments in my life have been the Challenger explosion, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Magic Johnson announcing he was HIV positive, 9/11 and now Michael Phelps breaking the all-time Olympic medal record.
It was not tragic. It was iconic. It wasn’t about a record, so much as it was a legacy. He joins Muhammed Ali as the unquestioned, unrivaled … GOAT.
Greatest Of All Time.
I watched all the other moments unfold on television — or in the case of the Challenger, at a gas station with my Mom — but last night, as I sat with Debbie, Hilary and Whitney Phelps watching their son and brother do what no other competitor has ever done, I said to myself “I am a witness. This isn’t a race. This is history.”
In the landscape of professional sports, athletes sometimes become pop songs — incredibly popular with fans for a short window of time, only to be replaced by another catchier, cuter, more “it” person of the moment.
As it relates to Phelps, it’s like comparing Bieber to The Beatles.
Last night, the stands were filled with the painted faces of flag-waving American fans, who were screaming until their throats became scratchy and their voices hoarse. We were joined by X Games legend Shaun White and Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Bar Rafaeli who sat with us for the 4 x 200 relay, which was medal number 19. The hugs and high fives were passed around and shared among everyone. It was a celebration and a coronation. It was an achievement measured in mettle, not medals.
As I stood and talked to Mike Wise — the brilliant sports journalist from the Washington Post, whom I’ve followed for years — it was only fitting that we recounted his column from earlier that morning, where he encouraged Ryan Lochte to focus less on chasing Michael Phelps and more on embracing his own talent, and image. Yeah, “grill” included.
There was a certain symmetry in the stands last night that probably wasn’t captured on the camera. It was the alpha and the omega, not in the sense of birth and death, but more in the context of returning to where you began.
As Phelps looked up into the stands and smiled at his crying mother and sisters, it was a joyous reminder that all of us need help and anyone who has ever truly accomplished something great, never did it alone. While there might only be one of us that can stand atop the podium to receive the medal, we would never have gotten there, were it not for the love, support and encouragement we received from others along the path to the podium.
To that end, thank you Mom. Everything that is good in me comes from you and Dad. I am no different than every athlete who will step onto the field of competition here at the London Olympics; I am nothing without the support of my family. There might not be a medal for that, but like Phelps, the true champions know where they came from, and who was with them every step of the way.
Every journey has a beginning and an end.
Every champion has a team.
Doug Eldridge is the founding president of DLE Agency, a full-service sports, entertainment and communications firm based in Washington, D.C. A lawyer by trade, Eldridge is a two-time Ironman finisher, and a longtime track and field athlete. His agency represents sports stars across the NBA, NFL, FIFA, UCI and IAAF as well as golf, fighting and motor sports athletes in addition to a Personalities Division, which includes musicians, among others. Eldridge provides mixed media and strategic communication consulting, and is frequently sought after for his sports analysis by various media outlets including NBC, ABC, CNN and Fox. For more updates, follow him on Twitter @DougEldridge and @DLEagency.