Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Me and Michael (Phelps)

I have (on very few occasions) met Olympic athletes in the past, usually people who competed on the U.S. Olympic team many years prior to our encounters. Their Olympic careers were pleasant memories by then, but not the defining characteristic of their lives.

Today, for the first time, I met someone who is not only a current competitor, but the person who represents Olympic competition and success more than any other: Olympic gold-medal winner Michael Phelps, who has participated in three Olympic Games (Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004, and Beijing in 2008) and who shows no signs of slowing down.

The occasion was the presentation of the Male Athlete of the Year Award from the United States Sports Academy. My business associate, Joe Szlavik, is a member of the Academy's Board of Visitors. He is also president of the U.S. Sports Alliance, a Washington-based trade association, and I serve as that organization's communications director. I was asked to take photographs of the award presentation, which took place in the Mangione Fitness and Aquatic Center on the campus of Loyola College in Maryland.

The center is quite impressive. Out of 3,800 students enrolled at Loyola, about 60 percent participate in intramural sports or club sports. In any given week during the school year, at least 1,000 students will use the Fitness and Aquatic Center's facilities.

Michael Phelps himself was quite friendly and laid back. He arrived by himself -- no handlers in tow -- to accept his award. (He was the recipient of the same award in 2003; previous winners include Lance Armstrong [four times!], Brett Favre, Carl Sanderson, and Tiger Woods.) The presentation was informal, consisting mostly of posing for pictures. (They'll turn up in the newsletter of the United States Sports Academy and perhaps in some other publications, as well.) He has the biggest hands I have ever seen on a human being. (And no, I didn't ask about his reported relationship with Miss California USA, Carrie Prejean. I'll leave that to the tabloids and Perez Hilton.)

Here is the text of the news release announcing the award:

ACADEMY TO PRESENT MICHAEL PHELPS MALE ATHLETE OF THE YEAR AWARD

DAPHNE, Ala. – Swimmer Michael Phelps, the all-time leader in career Olympic gold medals, will be presented the United States Sports Academy’s 2008 Male Athlete of the Year award on Tuesday 28 April at 11:30 a.m. in Baltimore, Maryland, by Joe Szlavik, president of the U.S. Sports Alliance.

Phelps won the award after a worldwide online vote in December 2008 when more than 300,000 votes were cast on a ballot hosted by the Academy, USAToday.com and NBCSports.com.

Phelps, who had approached Mark Spitz’s all-time record of seven gold medals (1972) by winning six golds at the 2004 Games in Athens, blew Spitz’s mark out of the water at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, grabbing an unprecedented eight gold medals in a single Olympiad.

In his third Olympic appearance, Phelps broke the world record in four of his five individual swims, while all three of his relay teams also set world record times.

Phelps won the 400-meter individual medley with a time of 4:03.84, as well as the 200 individual medley (1:54.23), 100 butterfly (50.58), 200 freestyle (1:42.96), 200 butterfly (1:52.03), 4 x 200 freestyle relay (6:58.56), 4 x 100 relay (3:08.24) and 4 x 100 medley relay (3:29.34). All times except the 100 meter butterfly were world records.

To date, Phelps has 14 Olympic gold medals, more than any other Olympian, and a total of 48 career medals in major international competitions, spanning from the Olympics to the World Games to the Pan Pacific Championships.

The Academy Athlete of the Year ballot is the culmination of the Academy’s yearlong Athlete of the Month program, which recognizes the accomplishments of men and women in sports around the globe. The Academy Athlete of the Month is selected by an international voting committee comprising media members and representatives of sports organizations and governing bodies.

The United States Sports Academy is an independent, nonprofit, accredited, special mission sports university created to serve the nation and the world with programs in instruction, research and service. The role of the Academy is to prepare men and women for careers in the profession of sports. For more information about the Academy, call 251-626-3303 or visit www.ussa.edu.

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