Since time immemorial, human beings have entered into bodies of water by choice or circumstance, and tried to swim in it, for fun or sport or survival. This doofy-looking 22-year-old is, arguably, better than anyone else has ever been at this.
What I particularly like about him, though, is how consistently uninsightful his post-race interviews have always been. You know going in that he’s going to be nice and that everything he says is going to be a cliche (except when he’s talking about the technical specifics of his sport). He’s sort of turning into an implicit challenge to the idea that we should expect athletes to be any more than that. The guy just wants to swim, to swim really well, and to do the work necessary for that. Should we expect more, from a swimmer? Why?
It’s great, of course, when someone with inspirational talent can also leverage his or her fame into a platform for their natural eloquence and social conscience. But we like Jesse Owens because he ran really fast at an opportune time (after presumably putting a lot of effort into his performance), and in running fast triggered (and continues to trigger) a sense of justice and hopefulness — not because Owens subsequently and visibly, say, devoted his life to working with traumatized children of the third world.
In his good-natured and essentially witless way, Phelps is reminding us that it’s really unfair, both to athletes and fans, for NBC to listen in to the pep talks 17-year-old gymnasts give to each other, as if they’re going to be sources of illuminating and empowering rhetoric.