I am enjoying the Summer Olympics as I always do. In 2008 it got me through a very lonely time. My husband was away on a job that required him to be out of town often; and my daughter was abroad. It was just me and the Olympics.
I loved the opening ceremony in China. Some parts of it moved me to tears. Then, of course, were those really exciting races with Michael Phelps. Watching them lifted my spirits. It was exhilirating, and I was happy for his success, but even as I watched him continually step up on the podium to receive, yet, another gold medal, I felt concern for him. That kind of overnight fame and wealth and all that goes with it is ungrounding, and I wasn't sure how well he could handle it. Yes--he had his mom in his camp, but his father was absent. Would he feel pain of his father's absence all the more in the light of such worldly success? Remember the blog piece
I recently watched his interview on 60 Minutes about the 2012 Olympics, and I what I heard confirmed my worries. He indicated that for years after the Olympics he had been dealing with a kind of existential no-mans-land that showed up as depression and lethargy. It didn't surprise me. I think it was healthy for him to step away from the pool and take some time to process the major changes that took place in his life. I've never known that kind of fame, but given all the celebrities we've seen who have had it, it is clear it really can throw one off balance. He was fortunate that he had the freedom to take time off to process this change. Overnight singing sensations and actors don't have that freedom. They find themselves tossed into unbearably crazy schedules to ride the sudden wave of fame while the public still has interest. Psychologically, that's the worst thing anyone can do, but career-wise it's a must.
Our society doesn't understand these kind of periods of inactivity. People who take them are not rewarded, and that's a shame. I remember John Lennon's song Watching the Wheels. He took time off from music to process everything he had gone through from the Beatles on. It took him nearly a decade, but what a healthy move it was. The song expresses the concern friends had about him and what he was doing with his life. But he knew very well why he had to let it all go. However, by then he had more experience with the fame machine than Michael Phelps and had gotten all the partying out of his system. Also, he had his son to raise, so he had a sense of purpose. Michael doesn't have children to ground him.
So Michael took time off from swimming, and then suddenly 2 years ago he decided he had to return to the Olympics once more. My understanding is his reason was a rivalry with Ryan Lochte. As the 60 minutes interview indicated, his time-off set him back big time. I felt in my bones that he might be setting himself up for grave disappointment.
People say to me there is no cause to worry after all he is a multi-millionaire, but money cannot protect one from one's own demons or dictate where those demons take you. Money can guarantee you can buy a whole lot of stuff, but it can't guarantee a sound mind. We've seen this time and again with , Michael Jackson, Judy Garland, Kurt Cobain--and the list goes on and on.
And so I will continue to worry about Michael Phelps. It won't keep me up nights, but it will be in the back of my mind. Like me, he's on his own --and I wish for him to reach his summit too. One would think he arrived at his summit back in 2008 or yesterday when he won his 19th Olympic medal, but John Lennon showed the world that one's true summit is a far more personal place, that of contentment and peace.