Wednesday, August 1, 2012

19 and Counting

("19 and Counting: Phelps is Most Decorated Olympian")

His medal count is indisputable testament to his greatness. Sports immortality is inextricably linked to numbers and 19 is an enormous number. So why am I not feeling more overwhelmed?

 Jack Nicklaus is the holder of wins in 18 Grand Slam events,  while Roger Federer has captured 17 singles titles in the majors.  They stand at the pinnacle of their chosen endeavors, and their dominance evokes a much deeper response than I get from reviewing the accomplishments of Mr. Phelps. Why?

First, as much as Phelps has dominated his sport, along the way he has received assistance from others. The medal count for him is not only for individual achievement but for effort exerted with teammates in various relay wins.  While tennis titles come in both singular and plural, Federer's figures are his own. As for Nicklaus, there is no team in I, and we is a foreign term when speaking in the grandest of slams.

Second, win, place and show is for horse races, not medal counts, at least in determining dominance. Phelps has, at this juncture of this Olympics, either by age or by having made a deliberate decision to reduce the effort required to succeed at this level, suddenly found himself at unfamiliar levels on the podium.  He seems vulnerable, even as he adds to his total. Of his 19 medals, 15 are gold.  Nicklaus, in addition to winning 18 majors, finished second an astonishing 19 times. In gold and silver terms, he has no rival.

And speaking of rivals, one of the most compelling aspects of  being the best, is fighting off those who nip at your heels. For Nicklaus, there was a Palmer and a Player. For Federer, there were worthy names throughout, no more so than Nadal and Djokovic, who now stand directly in his way to further titles. Who has there been for Phelps?

Swimming struts and frets its 15 minutes every 4 years. In between, their universe disappears from our sight. Federer and Nicklaus were in our living rooms week in and week out.  Four times each year, their enduring greatness was on display in the majors.  And whereas Phelps can be in and out of the picture in a matter of seconds,  the exploits of Federer and Nicklaus were sustained  for hour upon hour. The struggles play out for triumph in tennis over 7 matches and 2 weeks. We are exhausted just watching.  There is nothing between Phelps and the finish line except water.

So, as Phelps peered out from the top of Olympus last evening, my thoughts were not even principally on him and the enormity of what he had just accomplished. Instead, my eyes and my heart were focused on 5 little girls, some barely in their teens, who risked failure on the smallest of beams and who cried and smiled their way into our conscience and onto the top of the podium.

Whatever the reasons, 19 and counting emotionally seems to me an exercise in mathematics, even when intellectually I understand that it is so much more.

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