Memo to Michael Phelps

Nice job in China, guy. Now could you turn your attention to saving swimming?

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Dear Michael,

Best of 2008

See who and what else made our Best of 2008 list.

You don’t know me, Lord of All Aquamen, but I’m a former NCAA Division III champion whose Olympic swimming record doesn’t quite rival yours. The closest I ever came to making it to the Trials was back in ’84—you weren’t even a tadpole then—and “close” might be stretching things a bit. I went on to make zero Olympic appearances and win zero medals, and this year I failed (nobly, of course) in my attempt to qualify for the Olympic Trials at age 45.

But enough about me. This is about you—specifically, what you can do with your hard-earned, intergalactic fame to help boost the sport we both love so much. You’ve made it clear you care. “I want to raise the bar in the sport of swimming,” you’ve said, along with “I think people see swimming as an every-four-years sport. I know it’s tough with the NBA, NFL, NHL, and all the other sports around. But I would like swimming presented as an everyday, every-year sport.”

Instead of buying a Gulfstream or some other tacky bling, you took that $1 million bonus you got from Speedo—for tying Mark Spitz’s record of seven Olympic golds—and started a swimming foundation, putting your pile of cash where your mouth is. My understanding is that the money will be used not only to promote swimming but also to teach kids to live healthy, active lives.

That’s cool. I salute you. And I’m just writing to add one tiny thought: Please do more, and please hurry, because American swimming needs all the help it can get.

Aside from your eight wins, U.S. swimmers grabbed only four other individual golds in Beijing, continuing our sport’s steady spiral down to Davy Jones’s locker. This is happening because our farm system has been eroding for years, especially where boys are concerned. Compared with female swimmers, the number of males competing in amateur meets at every level has been dwindling for a while now. And since the seventies, at least 64 colleges have dropped male swim teams from their varsity lineups, claiming they don’t have enough money because of the funding demands of Title IX. (Meanwhile, some of these same broke universities can afford plenty of football scholarships for players who warm the bench on perennially losing teams.) Why would boys want to excel in a sport that can neither help them get into college nor even allow them to compete at the intercollegiate level?

This matters because, as you know, swimming is the greatest participatory sport in the world. Think about it. There’s hardly any other (somewhat) popular athletic activity in which boys and girls train together day in and day out, share the same lane, do the exact same sets, and work to exhaustion side by side, starting before they can read, even. Through proximity and repetition alone, swimming teaches gender blindness. And except in your case, Your Neptunitude, girls beat boys in practice on a daily basis. I can’t begin to count the number of times a female beat me in a distance set when I was a kid or in college. (It happens still.) Getting trounced creates respect for the opposite sex, making swimming a sport that, for the sake of gender relations alone, deserves to grow in popularity.

But please give up on the idea of making swimming as popular with “sports fans” as football, baseball, and basketball. Ain’t gonna happen. There’s no way you’re going to get the typical beer-guzzling, Slim Jim–chomping yahoo to add swimming to his roster of obsessions.

That’s OK, because your job is much simpler: Make swimming more popular with people who actually want to jump into a pool and do it. Toward that end, your role model isn’t Jordan or Jeter or a Manning—it’s Lance. Road racing was so far down the American athletic totem pole before he came along that pro badminton probably had more fans. He succeeded in boosting cycling’s profile and participant numbers, and he won only seven Tours—not your lucky eight gold medals.

The good news is that, thanks to you, things are already looking up. Before your heroic splash in Beijing, only 285,000 swimmers were participating in events sanctioned by USA Swimming, the sport’s governing body, but teams across the country are already seeing a significant spike in enrollment, which may result in a 10 percent increase nationwide. That’s pretty good—there was only a 7 percent jump after Athens, where you won six golds—but we can do better. Say, 50 percent?

Michael, while you perform these sober duties, it’s cool for you to date actresses or rock stars and reap endorsement mon­ey—and everything else Lance did. Just don’t get too far away from the water. Remember: You race, you dominate, the whole country begins to swim. It’s that simple.

Your loyal subject,

The Aftermath

You know about the eight gold medals. Here's what they added up to.

two: Miles swum in nine days of competition at the Olympic Games

36: Days after the Olympics Phelps did not work out in a pool

eleven: Number of blogs that had “Michael Phelps” in their URL at press time

26.6%: Olympics news stories focused on Phelps during the Games

16: Bids for a January 2008 issue of Outside, with Phelps on the cover, on eBay (it sold for $50)

1,1618,031: Number of “phans” on his Facebook page at press time, making him nearly as popular as Barack Obama (2,136,889 supporters)

one: Minutes it took for Phelps to gain ten more “phans” as we were researching this

SIX: Reported number of figures in Phelps’s mom’s endorsement deal with women’s-clothing company Chico’s

10,000,000: Number of boxes of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, Corn Flakes, Rice Krisples Treats, and Keebler Club Crackers his mug will appear on

$1.6 Million: The advance reportedly paid to Phelps by Free Press, a unit of Simon & Schuster, for his forthcoming bio

Let Me Put It This Way

Can mere words do justice to Michael's Olympic achievement? Apparently not.

“The way Michael slips through the water—it’s ghostlike.”

“Phelps is Tiger in a Speedo.”

“His physique is so perfectly suited for his sport, his dominance in the water so great, his focus so absolute that there are times when he does, indeed, seem to represent an aquatic turn in human evolution.”

“What he did today, and what he did this entire week, beats the Tour de France, beats the pressure putt in the U.S. Open. You know, it beats every part of what sport is.”

“Phelps tinkered with the idea of facial hair in the days before the competition began. But when the whistle blew, his face, like his technique, was as smooth as a baby’s rump… Outwardly Phelps looked as cool as a cucumber in Brad Pitt’s fridge. Inwardly the adrenaline was firing.”

“Someone told me about an hour ago that this week on Facebook you’ve gone by Michael Jordan, Manchester United, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer, but it doesn’t stop there. You’ve gone by the Jonas Brothers, you’ve gone by Miley Cyrus, you’ve gone by Justin Timberlake. You’ve swept the board.”