Michael Phelps Beyond the Olympics

Michael Phelps

It seems almost incredible to say it, but the Tokyo Olympics appear to be a go. While there have at times been whispers of cancellation, the latest word is that the games will be held after a one-year delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This doesn’t mean the Olympics will necessarily be normal. A report on Sports Illustrated recently revealed that the Tokyo organizers are against the idea of having international fans (which at this stage of the pandemic seems understandable). And we may well see some qualified athletes if not some entire nations stay home. But the games more broadly will be held, and Japan and the IOC will undoubtedly do everything they can to make them look and feel normal.

Michael Phelps

On top of the one-year delay, the possible lack of fans, and the general strangeness of it all though, the most bizarre thing about the Olympics for many might wind up being the absence of Michael Phelps. The “Flying Fish” has really retired this time, which means for the first Olympics since we first saw him in Athens in 2004 he won’t be part of the event.

After dominating Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008, Phelps took over the record books at the London Olympics in 2012, establishing himself as the greatest athlete in modern Olympic history (by the numbers, anyway). That was supposed to be the end of it, but Phelps came out of retirement in 2014 and wound up adding to his ludicrous medal totals at the Rio Olympics in 2016 as well. It’s reached the point at which it’s hard to imagine the summer games without Phelps (and almost hard to believe him when he says he’s truly, fully retired).

This time around Phelps really is done however, unless he’s managed to train and qualify for the 2020 (or 2021) games without anybody noticing. And because it’s going to be so bizarre to watch the Olympics this summer without Phelps powering through the pools, we thought we’d check in on what he’s been up to since his latest, and presumably final retirement.

First and foremost is golf — a common activity for retired athletes looking to keep their competitive juices flowing, so to speak. Back in 2017, in the aftermath of the Rio games, Golf Digest published a piece on Phelps’s effort to become a ‘scratch golfer,” cheekily referring to this as his toughest athletic challenge yet. The article noted that Phelps already had “tour-pro swing speed,” but made clear that the swimmer had his sights set on a better all-around game. Like so many other star athletes, from Peyton Manning to Michael Jordan, Phelps is channeling his natural love of competition into golf now.

It’s not just golf though. Michael Phelps has also kept himself busy at the poker tables, which incidentally is another fairly common competitive outlet for both active and retired athletes. Some view poker as something of a retro or old-fashioned activity, or one limited primarily to private back rooms or televised tournaments. The reality though is that it remains a fairly regular activity, taking place at venues all around the world and listed by Gala Casino as — still — one of the most popular casino games in the world. Given this enduring popularity, Phelps seems to have no trouble finding games, and has become a mainstay at poker tables, both for celebrity charity events and for his own amusement.

Most important of all though has been Michael Phelps’s emergence as a mental health advocate. As a board member at Medibio Limited and a spokesperson for Talkspace, Phelps has discussed some of his own struggles with mental health, and become a powerful voice in favor of eliminating stigmas and promoting treatment. Recently, he was also quoted by CNBC discussing some of the struggles he’s faced with regard to the pandemic specifically. It’s difficult to overstate the potential impact of such a famously successful figure speaking up and being open about mental health.

So all in all, we’d say Phelps is staying plenty busy! He seems to have come up with a nice mix of competition, amusement, and advocacy to occupy himself outside of the pool. It will still be weird to watch the Olympics without him, but it will be nice for fans to know he’s doing just fine.


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