“The chase” or “You still amaze me”

It wasn’t a breakthrough experience, but it was a tug, a reminder, a nudge. He encouraged me and told me he was still hanging around and still believed in me.

I had a pretty crappy day at work. Wasn’t really anything in particular that went wrong–just one of those days that I could live without. I hadn’t had a dark day like that in a while. Seems like I used to all the time, but the new me has been pretty joyful of late. So, it kinda took me off guard.

But I prodded through it and managed to make it to 5 p.m. without losing my temper.

Clark had food waiting and I promptly thanked him for cooking–something I rarely do. I then sat down with dinner and opened my latest issue of ESPN magazine. The religious side of me spoke up and said a REAL Christian would read his Bible after a poor day. I shrugged and proceeded to browse the table of contents.

On page 106, I could read about Michael Phelps. But it didn’t appear to be the article one would expect. Sounded like it was a chronicle of his fall from glory. "Fish Out of Water," the article was titled. It ended up being one of the best-written sports stories I’ve ever read.

People warned Michael’s mother, Debbie, that the fallout could be hard. It had happened before–to one of Michael’s good friends actually. After the Sydney Games, Ian Crocker spiraled into depression, almost quitting college and swimming completely. It took a year counseling and medication before Crocker felt "strong enough to face another Olympics."

That’s the dark side of infamy and success for some. Minutes after Phelps’ last race, a veteran swimmer told him "Four years are over. Right now." Eight medals in eight days–the product of 12 years and 21,000 miles of preparation. Done.

He crashed hard. Weeks into the "Swim With the Stars" Disney tour, Phelps looked dead to his coach. He was worn out. And then came the back pain–a stress fracture that would take him out of commission and the pool for months. And then the DUI.

He made a mistake. Not as anal about his actions since he wasn’t training for any big competition, Phelps stayed out late with some buddies and drank a bit. Nobody offered to drive, so he took the wheel of his SUV and rolled through a stop sign. Lights flashed and he blew a .08. Bam! 18 months probation and an instantly marred public image.

Phelps was flying first class the day after it happened and saw a fellow passenger open the paper and take in the headline. You can guess what it read. Phelps turned away and buried himself in his blanket.

Things only got worse. He couldn’t stand assisting the UM swim coach without being able to dip in the water himself, which eventually led to a big falling out. Phelps moved out of the coach’s home and into his own condo, where life began to revolve around eating, sleeping and watching TV–not swimming, swimming and swimming. He lost his tone, his strength, his heart.

When time did come to get back in the pool, he finished seventh out of eight against college athletes–the peers he formerly dominated.

But Coach Bowman triggered a revival. He scheduled Phelps for four exhibition races on a winter weekend during a UM meet. Phelps in lane 4 vs. the clock. He set three pool records. The challenge had forced Phelps to live with purpose again. He realized that "more than the fame or the records or the green or the gold, he needed the water–needed it like air."

So now he swims…and swims fast. He dominated a recent US trials meet in Indy, winning all five events he entered. And he’s ENJOYING life again–he’s enjoying swimming for swimming’s sake. He has his heart back.

The article ended telling how Phelps fulfilled Kristin’s Make-a-Wish dream: meeting him. She has Down syndrome, but always dreamed of being a great athlete. Swimming was about the only sport she could manage due to a heart condition doctors haven’t been able to fix. After greeting her, Phelps took laps to her cheering him on. "Go for the gold!" she shouted.

I nearly got choked up at the end of the article. I connected with the downtrodden Phelps, weary of people’s expectations, living his dream best he knew how but mostly just following commands like a robot. And then the falling out–the crash after the glory of the Olympics and the disappointment he became to his mom and his coach and the American public after the DUI. Then living below his potential, wondering if he should toss in the towel and call it quits.

Was it really worth all the work? All the pain? All the resistance and competition and pressure?

But the water called him back. His love called him back. He was reminded of the joy it brought him. And then there was the ultimate confirmation: Kristin–the one who believed in him all the way. He could swim the Pacific Ocean in her mind. And oh, how she cheered him on and encouraged him and was his biggest fan!

And that’s when Jesus took her place in my mind and reminded me that he’s my biggest fan and that he doesn’t care about my mistakes or shortcomings or struggles but just believes in me and cheers me on and swims with me. He joins me in my heart’s desire and brings out my best.

"Kristin sat in the stands as her idol jumped in the pool. He swam his usual laps–so mundane the day before–while she cheered him on: ‘Go for the gold!’ He waved and sped up, feeling no pain. After practice, he waited for her to change into her bathing suit and grinned as she dove in. She climbed onto his back and held on tight. Phelps took off. ‘Faster!’ she yelled, giggling. ‘Go faster!’ He did. Faster and faster Phelps went, smiling wider and wider, and Kristin felt like she was flying."

By Joel Maust

Joel Maust is a marketer, blogger and photographer living in the beautiful Flathead Valley of northwest Montana.

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