Skip to main content

Retire, Phelps, and live your life

By Jeff Pearlman, Special to CNN
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
Olympics star Michael Phelps should ignore advice to continue competing, says Jeff Pearlman, and stick to his plan to retire.
Olympics star Michael Phelps should ignore advice to continue competing, says Jeff Pearlman, and stick to his plan to retire.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jeff Pearlman: Michael Phelps should stick to his plan, forget Rio in 2016 and retire
  • He says sports history is lousy with icons who didn't quit when they should have and fell short
  • He says main reason to ignore advice to keep competing is that Phelps should begin to live life
  • Pearlman: Olympics is great moment in time, but it can't last

Editor's note: Jeff Pearlman is the author of "Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton," out in paperback in August. He blogs at jeffpearlman.com. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- In the history of organized athletics, there has never been a person who needs to come back again less than Michael Phelps.

Yes, you have read that correctly. I am urging the greatest swimmer in all of sports to keep his word, forget about Rio in 2016 and retire. To go away. To vanish. To ignore his mother and his sisters and Matt Lauer and Mark Spitz and Rowdy Gaines and to once and for all hang up his goggles and Speedos.

Go. Scram. Buzz off.

Jeff Pearlman
Jeff Pearlman

Because athletics enthusiasts are a peculiar people (aka: crazy), we always beg our heroes to stick around longer than they should. It's the reason a portly, 40-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. hit .184 in Seattle in 2010 and the reason Bjorn Borg stepped back onto the tennis court in 1991 (wood racket in hand) -- only to win nary a single match. It's the reason our final snapshot of Sugar Ray Leonard is an embarrassing stoppage against Hector Camacho and the reason Jim Palmer arrived at spring training with Baltimore in 1991 throwing big, fat, Little League meatballs.

Why, it's even the reason a 41-year-old Spitz, Phelps' predecessor as our own personal Aquaman, jumped back into the pool to qualify for the 1992 Games in Barcelona. He, of course, failed -- by a whopping two seconds.

News: Olympic legend Phelps: 'I'm done with swimming'

We convince these men and women that they can still do it, that it's worth one more shot, that age is just a number, that legend is a gift of the gods, and to not use it is shameful. (Gaines, the former Olympic swimmer who now works as an NBC commentator, recently said he believes Phelps will likely come back because "he'll be able to walk through airports in a couple years and not be mobbed. He'll miss that." There is a word for this line of thinking: sad.)

Phelps plans for the future
Phelps' favorite things ...
Coe: 'Not sure' Phelps greatest

Then, predictably, when they fall short, we bemoan that the effort was ever made. We offer comments such as, "Boy, that was pathetic" and "He should have stayed retired" -- forgetting that we were the ones pining for the return. Again, sports fan are crazy.

Yet the inevitable disappointment of a then-31-year-old Phelps underperforming in Rio (and, for the record, 31 in swimming is 40 in real life) isn't the No. 1 reason he should stay away. No, Phelps needs to remain retired because, quite frankly, life in a pool sucks. OK, not for a week, while vacationing in Orlando.

But imagine being Phelps. You wake up at 5 a.m., spend four hours in a pool, go home, sleep (in your Michael Jackson-esque oxygen tank), return to the pool for another two hours, eat (a disgustingly healthy and bland) dinner, go to bed, then repeat the following day. And the day after that. And the day after that. And the day after that. And ...

For, hell, 1½ decades, Phelps' existence has revolved around the insidious smell of chlorine. When he talks, one can hear -- very clearly -- his weariness over the whole endeavor. "These Olympics have been great, but. ..."

But Phelps needs a life. If I'm Debbie, Michael's mother, I cease with all the Rio jabber (really, the woman needs to stop) and say the following: "Son, I'm proud of you. You've done amazing things. But you're 27, and life is short. You've made lots of money in endorsements. Use some of it. Here's a backpack, a Fodor's and a one-way ticket to Prague. Go see the world. Eat anything you want. Sleep in hostels, drink lots of beers, hit up Amsterdam and Barcelona and Geelong and Venice and Wolverhampton and Valletta. Tell the ladies you're Michael Phelps if it helps, or just pull your cap down low and call yourself Biff Stevens. Just make sure and live!"

When we watch the Olympics on TV, and the uplifting music is piped in and the anthems are played and tears stream down the cheeks of winners, we are witnessing a sliver of time -- a singular moment that encompasses 1/1,000,000,000th of an athlete's existence. It is romantic and lovely; Bev Oden the former Olympic volleyball star, calls the experience, "the height of euphoria."

But that euphoria, like all things, passes, and at day's end many athletes are left wondering not whether they should have stayed on longer, but whether, in missing senior proms and romantic summer nights and family vacations, they surrendered too much.

After three Olympic Games and 22 medals, it is time for Phelps to stop surrendering.

It is time to live.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeff Pearlman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 19, 2014 -- Updated 1710 GMT (0110 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT