The 2016 Olympic Games now have been over for a little over a week. Many people would say the event concluded on a down note. Unfortunately, the ridiculous Ryan Lochte story left many spectators with a very negative memory of the Rio Games. Lochte deserves every bit of criticism, as his actions have demonstrated the stereotype of a spoiled and entitled American. Not much can be said to defend him or part the unavoidable dark cloud he has cast on the 2016 Olympic Games or even the sport of swimming. However, there were some pretty incredible and inspirational stories that are now getting overlooked, but should definitely not be forgotten. And you don’t have to leave the pool for these stories.
David Plummer breaks through
It takes an incredible amount of discipline, perseverance, commitment and sacrifice to make an Olympic team. That’s not an earth-shattering observation, but David Plummer’s path to Rio and Olympic performance was one of a kind. Plummer entered the 2016 Olympic Trials as a 30-year old who failed to qualify for the team in his previous two attempts. At the 2012 Trials, he missed a spot on the team by a measly 12 hundredths of a second, following a sixth place finish in 2008.
David Plummer came to this year’s trials, knowing it would be his last chance to qualify for the Olympics. He tied his hopes to one event, the 100-meter backstroke. Plummer prevailed this time around, finishing second and grabbing a spot on the US Olympic Swim Team. It was clear he was not satisfied by earning a spot on the team, considering he went on to earn the Bronze Medal in his lone event at the Olympic Games.
Most athletes, especially swimmers, have their best years between their late-teens and early twenties. Therefore, the odds of qualifying for the Olympics get slimmer with age. If you told me that an Olympic hopeful would go to the trials three times at the ages of 22, 26 and 30 and only qualify once, I’d put money on 22 and not think twice about it. But David Plummer, despite disappoint and heartbreak in 2008 and 2012 didn’t give up, despite the prospects of making the team as a first-time Olympian as a 30-year old looking very unlikely. If anything, it should teach us that despite failing to accomplish a goal when conditions may lend to it being the best chance to do so, that you’re never too old to chase a dream.
Simone Manuel makes history
Swimming has historically been a sport that has lacked diversity and minority participation. Cullen Jones had previously been the lone face of swimming for minorities in the United States. Jones failed to earn a spot on this year’s team, despite earning a pair of gold and silver medals in the previous two Olympic Games. Aside from Jones’ accomplishments in the pool, he has been a very significant figure and has never hid his passion for bringing more diversity to the sport. He has made a concerted effort to change the culture of competitive swimming by encouraging younger African Americans to become competitive swimmers.
Enter Simone Manuel, who was swimming in her very first Olympics at the age of 20. Manuel has been equally vocal and passionate about minority participation in competitive swimming. She made history by becoming the first African American woman to win a gold medal, by tying Penny Oleksiak in the 100-meter freestyle with a time of 52.70, an Olympic record.
It was a magical moment, and a very historic one. Very few people get to experience winning an Olympic gold medal. That alone is worthy of overwhelming emotion. But at that moment, Manuel knew that what she accomplished had unprecedented significance for competitive swimming.
Phelps with the unexpected encore
Michael Phelps could have retired after the 2012 Olympic Games in London as the most decorated Olympian of all time. He concluded the London Games with 18 gold medals with the plan to ride off into the sunset, retiring at the age of just 27. In April 2014, Michael Phelps announced he would come out of retirement and would target his fifth and final Olympic Games in 2016.
Two years after his retirement announcement and in September 2014, Phelps was arrested for his second DUI and was subsequently suspended from USA Swimming for a six month period, which prohibited him from swimming in the 2015 World Aquatics Championships. Phelps himself has admitted it to be the ultimate low point in his life, where he went as far as to contemplating suicide. At that point, it was not inconceivable to think his competitive swimming career was over and we would not have the enjoyment of watching him compete at the Olympics one more time.
All too often, very talented and accomplished athletes have their career cut short for “off-field” (or out-of-pool) reasons. Even if they continue to compete following an adversarial event, circumstances have their way of derailing the athlete’s focus, drive and commitment to their sport. However, the way in which Michael Phelps responded was dignifying. He wouldn’t let the 2014 arrest be the last event most people remembered about him. Phelps entered the 2016 Rio Olympics with a newfound determination to end his career on a high note and put the finishing touching’s on a legacy that another athlete has never match or is likely to ever match. He earned five gold medals in Rio, bringing his career total to an astounding 23.
Michael Phelps’s accomplishments as a competitive swimmer are beyond unbelievable and it’s unlikely that anyone will ever come close to paralleling his medals, performances and records. But it was his inspirational response to adversity and depression that made the conclusion to his career one of the best stories of the 2016 Olympic Games.