Even as swimmer Michael Phelps was devouring his competition to win 22 Olympic medals (18 gold) in four Olympics, somehow a void remained in his experiences at the Games.
Because he typically raced in the grueling 400-meter individual medley that begins on the first official day of competition, Phelps never had participated in opening ceremonies.
That will change in the most drastic of ways on Friday night at Maracana Stadium:
Phelps will lead in Team USA as its flag bearer.
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Clad, no less, in a blazer with glowing panels on the back that compelled colorful teammate and rival Ryan Lochte to suggest he is tempted to steal it.
For all Phelps has achieved, for all the inner conflicts that led him astray and then into an apparent journey of enlightenment, news of the honor left him with what he called “the biggest smile on my face that you could possibly find” and to shedding tears of joy.
The news, along with his newly proclaimed senses of peace and reconciliation and fulfillment in the arrival of a son, accounts for why he says his “emotions will be 10 times what they’ve ever been before” as he swims in what he jokingly (we think) called his “potential last Olympics.”
This is a no-brainer of a selection by USA athletes of a young man who has bestrided the Olympics as one of its most prominent and enduring faces.
Even if you can make the case that the “no-brainer” notion implies being overly simplistic as much as it does obviousness.
After all, there are others in our melting pot whose nomination would have stood for something more diverse or bold.
Others like eloquent fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the Duke graduate who will become the first American Olympian to compete in a hijab and an argument for whom was deftly made by Yahoo’s Eric Adelson.
There would have been an incredible and indelible statement in that, to be sure, especially at a time knee-jerk intolerance has been surging.
But just because you wouldn’t call it imaginative doesn’t mean Phelps’ selection should be considered unsophisticated or merely politically neutral or expedient.
Phelps is an international icon that virtually a generation of now-Olympic swimmers grew up wanting to be, the towering figure that athletes from Argentina to the Refugee Olympic Team want to be photographed with, the one whose eight gold medals in a single games in Beijing likely will stand forever.
Phelps stands for something no one else can: uncanny achievements that almost seemed robotic … speckled by trouble with alcohol (two arrests for driving under the influence, the second of which led to Phelps being removed from the U.S. team that competed in the 2015 world championships and spending six weeks at a treatment center) and conflicts with family.
All of which remind that he actually has been flesh-and-blood all along.
Those issues don’t detract from his resume.
They enhance it by humanizing someone who isn’t so much the greatest athlete ever as the most-accomplished, someone who was so dominant as to be under-appreciated in the pantheon of great American athletes.
So this is something special and something well-deserved for Phelps.
That’s why Nathan Adrian, one of the swimming team captains, was flustered after making the case for Phelps before the representatives from the other U.S. sports.
“If he didn’t get it,” Adrian said, “it was going to be on my shoulders.”
So now the duty and honor of carrying the flag will be on the shoulders of Phelps, a fitting start to the (apparent) end of an Olympic career like no other.
“It feels so right to have the most decorated Olympian of all time being our flag-bearer and leading us,” teammate Missy Franklin said. “And outside of the pool, having someone who has overcome so much internally, externally, and shared that with everyone and just shown people what an inspiration he is.”
There are more inspiring stories, yes, and more dynamic statements that might have been made.
But what Phelps has done both epitomizes and elevates the Olympic movement.
And even if it may seem predictable or redundant to further honor with him this distinction, it’s one that should be respected – and one that will make his first opening ceremonies something to be cherished all the more.