Phelps: Former Hero?

September 30, 2014: Michael Phelps is yet again arrested for DUI in Baltimore, Maryland, resulting in a six-month suspension from USA Swimming and a trial set for Nov. 19.

Phelps, driving on Interstate 95 on a Monday night, was pulled over by police and found to have a blood alcohol level of .14 percent, compared to the .08 legal limit in Maryland. Weaving all over the road, he crossed double yellow lines at almost 40 miles above the speed limit.

Phelps tweeted after the arrest, “Earlier this morning, I was arrested and charged with DUI, excessive speeding and crossing double lane lines. I understand the severity of my actions and take full responsibility. I know these words may not mean much right now but I am deeply sorry to everyone I have let down.”

Everyone makes mistakes, but it is much harder to move past them or cover them up when you are as famous as Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time. He has not only let down the public and Team USA but an entire community and world of swimmers.

I have competed at many swim meets that Michael Phelps, among other Olympians and big-name swimmers, has also participated in. Seeing him on deck is exciting but normal for me at the same time. However, the little kids who come to watch Phelps and the other Olympians swim are always overjoyed, jumping up and down and hoping they will get an autograph and maybe even a picture if they are lucky. These young swimmers, boys and girls alike, look up to Phelps and his legacy, and many of them wish to follow in his footsteps—or should I say, bubbles.

Phelps’s first DUI occurred when he was 19 years old following the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, in which he won six gold medals. Since he was a first time offender, the judge sentenced him to eighteen months’ probation and a fine but waived the charges. Now he will be charged as a first-time offender since his past charges were waived. However, Phelps still faces a $1,000 fine, the loss of his driver’s license for six months, and up to a year in jail.

In addition to these legal punishments, USA Swimming has added their own. Phelps is banned from competition for six months and also loses his funding stipend of $1,750 per month for all six months. Although this number is nothing in comparison to the millions he earns from endorsements by his many sponsors, USA Swimming is taking a stand, and that is what really matters.

Back in 2004 when Phelps was first arrested, USA Swimming did not step forward and enforce punishments. Although I am a little disappointed I will not be seeing Phelps at national meets in November and February, it is imperative that USA Swimming and Team USA take a strong stance against alcohol use and athletic irresponsibility.

Over the past decade, drinking and partying has become a huge part of America’s culture, particularly in sports. There is always one story or another about athletes driving under the influence, using drugs, or making other poor choices. I know from firsthand experience, especially with my college recruiting trips this fall, that partying is rampant not only among high school students and normal college students but among athletes as well. This amazes me because as a non-partier, I cannot comprehend how many of these incredible athletes destroy their bodies and repeatedly make unhealthy choices. How can the loss of health seem acceptable to these athletes, particularly swimmers?

I believe the answer lies in the leaders and big names of swimming. Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte are the most well known swimmers not only in the US but also in the world. Both Olympians party like there is no tomorrow, and just last year Lochte tore his ACL in a drunken scuffle with a woman, which was publicized as Lochte trying to catch a fan when she tripped. Similarly, pictures surfaced a few years ago of Phelps smoking marijuana, and rumors spread like wildfire of his various relationships with prostitutes and strippers. Lochte even had his own TV show on E! Network that aired for a couple episodes and featured Ryan attending parties. Phelps and Lochte have perpetuated the partying culture in swimming, allowing younger swimmers to follow suit, and believe that success can still be attained even when breaking the law or making detrimental choices.

Phelps has shown that success is not guaranteed no matter how experienced an athlete you are, as his illegal actions have also caused his suspension from 2015 FINA World Championships, which is the biggest swim meet in the world besides the Olympics. Phelps was on a great road toward an awesome comeback after his year off until he made the decision to drink and drive on the last night of September. His grand comeback may already be on the downturn due to his lack of athletic responsibility as a role model and swimmer.

Phelps has since released a statement saying, “I recognize this is not my first lapse in judgment, and I am extremely disappointed in myself. I’m going to take some time away to attend a program that will provide the help I need to better understand myself…. Right now I need to focus my attention on me as an individual, and do the necessary work to learn from this experience and make better decisions in the future.”

Kudos to Phelps for taking responsibility and owning up to his actions, but it may be too late to save his comeback and reputation among swimmers worldwide.