Now that he’s out of the pool, with no more races to win or records to break, Michael Phelps has a bit of a problem. Perched mightily atop the apex of modern athletic achievement, with the white hot light of International Superstardom now pointed directly at him, Phelps is in the unfamiliar position of having to perform for a worldwide audience by doing something other than that with which he’s most comfortable: swimming. And as anyone who’s ever had the mixed blessing of being “on top” of anything can tell you, the only place left to go is back down.
With a figure like Phelps, who has been so universally praised in the press, hailed as a hero by the millions of Americans who watched as he made history, and achieved a level of fame usually reserved for Jesus and Burt Reynolds in the 70’s, the eventual media backlash is inevitable – and our own jokey, superficial assessment of some his poorer fashion choices is just a toe dipped in the cesspool of cruel, insatiably hungry TMZ cameras and tabloid gossip monsters so eagerly awaiting his return stateside. As America’s love affair with Phelps finally begins to cool, his every move is going to be captured, scrutinized and criticized until the modern media has managed to mold and shape him into whatever story arc they ultimately choose for him (hint: it will be whichever one proves most profitable). He hasn’t even gotten back from Beijing yet and fame-baggage such as cereal box scandals and the rumored lust of Lindsay Lohan have already managed to enter his sphere of orbit. Only time can tell what will ultimately become of Michael Phelps, but for the sake of speculation, here are five possible futures he could be facing, as demonstrated by legendary swimmers of Olympics past.
Option 1: Become A Pseduo-Celebrity
Role Models: The most obvious comparison – and one Phelps himself has been complicit in making with his Sports Illustrated cover homage – is with 70’s swimming icon Mark Spitz. After setting 7 world records at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Spitz returned to lucrative endorsement deals and the enthusiastic courtship of the fickle folks in Hollywood, due as much to his movie star looks as his world champ status, a fact about which he himself once bragged publicly. However, the Golden Boy image and swingin’ 70’s style couldn’t make up for his spectacular inability to act, and the film and TV offers soon gave way to the occasional bit part and sports broadcasting gig. These days he mostly does commercials and talks about swimming. Bruce Jenner – while not a swimmer, but a decathlete – could also provide a potential cautionary tale as someone whose Olympic achievements were ultimately eclipsed by an unfortunate appearance in the Village People biopic Can’t Stop The Music, giving birth to Brody Jenner, and becoming the standing patriarch of the Kim Kardashian Klan.
How Phelps Could Achieve This: In today’s celebrity-centric media landscape, this seems to be the path most easily and obviously taken by Phelps. Today it’s the cover of the Frosted Flakes box and text messaging with Lindsay Lohan, final stop: I Love Money: Season Four and Phelps-brand swimming floaties.
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2. Become A Bonafide Movie Star
Role Models: After retiring from swimming in 1928 with five Olympic gold metals, Johnny Weissmuller went on to become a major movie star, making more than ten successful films in the titular role of Tarzan, then going on to star in another successful film franchise with Jungle Jim. While never nominated come Oscar time, Weissmuller managed to maintain a productive and profitable career in Hollywood for decades to came.
How Phelps Could Achieve This: Unless there’s a great thespian hiding in that freakishly elongated torso of his, Phelps had better hope that – like Weissmuller – Hollywood can find for him a role whose acting demands amount to grunting, yelling and beating his chest. Or that Brendan Fraser retires.
3. Become A Benign National Hero
Role Models: After retiring from professional swimming after winning three gold medals then placing 2nd to Johnny Weissmuller at the 1924 Olympics, Duke Kahanamoku went on to
became a national ambassador for swimming, then popularized the sport of surfing, which at that point was only known in his homeland of Hawaii. Duke once rescued eight capsized fishermen from drowning, using his surfboard to paddle back and forth to the shore, bringing survivors to safety. Lifeguards have utilized surf boards for rescue efforts ever since. Later in life, Kahanamoku served 13 consecutive terms as the Sheriff of Honolulu, Hawaii, where he is still regarded as a hero to this day.
How Phelps Could Achieve This: Considering his past DUI and the general lack of morality found among the famous in contemporary culture, this seems like a long shot. But his current heroic status could indeed be extended indefinitely if he did something truly spectacular, say invent some kind of new extreme watersport, then swim all the way to Afghanistan and arrest Osama Bin Laden?
4. Marry Rich
Role Models: Old-timey swimmer Charles Daniels – no, not the same guy who challenges Satan to fiddling competitions – won 5 gold medals between 1904 and 1908, all while rocking a full-length suit with shoulder straps and with pants down to the knees. Then he went on to marry Florence Goodyear, heiress to the Goodyear tire fortune, and likely spent the rest of his life lazying about by a pool.
How Phelps Could Achieve This: I’m sure Paris Hilton is available if he wants her, and together they could undoubtedly set records for worst additions to the gene pool.
5. Quietly Return To Civilian Bliss
Role Models: Upon winning 8 gold medals in the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games, Matt Biondi took his Berkeley degree and moved to Kamuela, Hawaii, where he got married, had a kid, and now teaches math, U.S. History, personal excellence, and swimming at a small high school.
How Phelps Could Achieve This: Deeply examine the last couple years of Britney Spears’ life, then manage to arrive at the personal realization that sometimes its best to just take the money and run.