I had the blessing of reporting on the most decorated Olympian in history from 2000 to 2004, when Michael Phelps went from being a 14-year-old phenom to the star of the Games.
The accompanying photo was taken in August 2000, at the U.S. Trials in Indianapolis, the night after Phelps finished second in the 200 butterfly and became the youngest American male to qualify for the Olympics in any sport since 1952. He was less than two months removed from his 15th birthday; I was 45, and from my expression, already gasping to keep up with Phelps. Twelve years later, I can still smell the chlorine at the International Aquatics Center in Sydney, Australia, the host city of the 2000 Olympics.
In rapid fashion, Phelps became the youngest male ever to set a world record in a timed sport, and then the youngest American male swimmer ever to turn professional. Back then – a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away – daily newspapers in markets such as Baltimore had the resources to do what The Sun did from April 2003 to August 2004, send me wherever Phelps competed.
Without Michael, I would have never toured cathedrals in Barcelona or taken a drive with my wife,
Mary, along the Great Ocean Road outside Melbourne, Australia, to see the 12 Apostles (a rock formation, not St. Peter et al). The competition was pretty good, too.
At the Athens Olympics in 2004, besides becoming the first swimmer ever to medal in five individual events and the first Olympian to earn eight medals in a non-boycotted Games, Phelps and the U.S. vanquished a supposedly invincible Australia foursome in the 800 freestyle relay.
It was a good night to be a Yank.
I recounted his development in a book titled “Amazing Pace, The Story of Olympic Champion Michael Phelps from Sydney to Athens to Beijing” (Rodale Press, 2006). One year, I was an authority on the most quantifiable human on the planet. The next, as Managing Editor of The Catholic Review, I dove into matters of the divine that have eluded theologians for millennia. Perhaps I had always been pulled in this direction. Page 1 of that book includes this sentence: “Michael Phelps manipulated water like no man since Moses.”