Role Models

Feb 4, 2009
Role Models

A firestorm was started the other day on the GoSwim site when a post was made regarding Michael Phelps and Amanda Beard, two Olympic Champions from the US, and two swimmers who have done what some people consider questionable things.

In responding to this post, I tried as much as I could to defend the athletes.  It's always my position to defend the athletes so long as no one else was harmed by their actions.  It's never my place to make moral judgments on others, since I have no idea what they're going through, or how their background has led them to make the decisions they have.

Many posters defended and dismissed the recent events surrounding Michael, maybe without understanding that, in the US, pot is still illegal.  This is the crux of the issue.  No matter how you view the use of pot, it's simple here:  It's illegal.  

I defended Michael because when I viewed the initial post, it was filled with negative phrases about not only Michael, but also Amanda, two athletes whom I know, and really like.  I like them not just because they're great swimmers, but also because they've always treated me kindly and with respect.   How I feel about someone is based on my personal experience with them, although I will develop opinions about someone based on things that are written or that I see on video.

The originator of the post, I learned yesterday, is a coach who, upon seeing what was happening on the site, decided to give me a call.  We had a lengthy discussion about the pros and cons on our opinions.  As we talked, it became clear that the coach was interested in the exact same thing that I was, which is:  How can we as adults/parents/coaches turn this into something that's a life lesson for our swimmers?  This is usually the goal for all coaches.  The initial fear of what impact this news would make on the athletes, and the thought that the swimmers would assume this type of behavior is OK, could not stand.

The coach and I both agreed that this is actually a huge opportunity for a positive lesson.  

Who should be the role model for our athletes, for our children?  

I love these athletes, virtually all of them.   Maybe it's because I was fortunate enough at one point in my life to be a very good swimmer, and respect the work it's taken them to reach this level, no matter their beliefs or actions.  Or maybe it's that I'm envious of their ability to actually GO to the Olympics (I missed that chance due to the boycott).  Maybe it's because of the beauty I see in their movements... how graceful they are as they travel through the water... how they reach just a bit deeper than others to be able to rise to a new level in their athletics and overcome the pain that comes every day without fail, and without question.  Whatever the reasons for my admiration, it's there.

But with that said,  I do see them as what they are: great athletes.  While there are so many great actions these people do, we are reminded of them only when something bad happens.  While we want our Olympians to always be Olympian-like, we have to remember they are Olympians for athletics.  Outside the arena, they are merely people, and perhaps we need to make that distinction when we look to them for advice, inspiration, etc.    Perhaps we need to narrow our view and look to them for advice and inspiration about athletics.  Yes, it would be great if an athlete presented the "whole package" of athletic prowess and personal behavior that is beyond reproach.  But is that realistic?    And when our star athletes are relatively young, is it realistic to look to them for advice on subjects that take more seasoning in life, more experience, and more understanding that the actions we make will have impact on others?

During the phone call, the coach and I spoke of how this can be used to help our swimmers, and who should be the role models.  It was agreed that there are but a few.  It's the people who come in the closest contact with the swimmers that have to become the role models:  
• The parent -  leading with the unconditional love that only a parent can give.  To love no matter how fast, how slow, how good, or how bad any action is.  While the child's world, educationally, socially, athletically, can be seemingly falling apart, the parent will continue to love no matter what.  For advice on life, the swimmer should always be able to turn to the parent first.
• The coach - asking the athlete to do what they don't want to.  Understanding the good days, the bad days, and asking more on the bad days because the challenge will eventually have to be overcome.  To be nice, to be mean, to be understanding, and to be demanding, the coach must be one thing: consistent.  For advice on athletics, the swimmer should always be able to turn to the coach.
• The teacher - very similar to the coach, but instead of athletics, with education.  Demanding, instructing, inspiring, and making sure the child knows the importance of this over other things, because so many other things will eventually end, but not knowledge.  Friends will come and go, athletic prowess will wilt, but knowledge is a very difficult thing to lose once it's been gained.

While there are other potential role models (ministers, rabbis, and priests for religious purposes; police for law enforcement; fire and emergency workers, and military, for protecting us and others around the world; and the list goes on), the focus here is mainly on the people who will come into contact with the child on a daily basis.  These people are the ones who will form the tightest bond with the athlete/child.  These are the people who will serve, like it or not, as the role models.

The ones that we see from afar have a huge responsibility placed on them.  When they sign the contracts to make the money, people will start to see them with preconceived perception of what that person SHOULD be, not REALLY knowing what's on the inside.  Very rarely knowing what's going through that person's mind.  So we project what we think they should be.

Very rarely do they ultimately, completely, live up to what everyone thinks they should be.  How could they?

Right or wrong, whatever decisions or unfortunate choices these athletes have made, or have been perceived to have made by people with different guidelines in their lives, we still have to remember what they did to make us admire them in the first place, and remember that they, too, are just people, looking for role models in their lives as well.  I feel worse for Michael right now, knowing how bad he must feel having to talk to his mother about this.   I don't know Mrs. Phelps, but I bet she's angry with him but, without a doubt, loves him without question.

Let's all remember our roles, and not forget that the athletes we watch are to be admired, not worshipped.  We should respect how and what they did, but not require that they raise our children, or hope that they would.  We can use this situation to teach our children and to look up to these people as great athletes, and if we're fortunate enough, great people (which I ultimately think Michael is and will be, and without a doubt Amanda has always been).

I'm tentative about reminding us all about the athletes that have made it through the rough times, standing tall, and remain unbelievable athletes, and through their quiet actions, PEOPLE to be admired:
• Brendan Hansen for accepting tough races with honor and grace.
• Jason Lezak for never giving up.
• Amanda Beard for making a 4th Olympic Team when people thought she was spending too much time posing.  ;)
• Eric Shanteau for making the Olympic Team and swimming in the Olympics, with cancer.
• Dave Denniston for showing us all that no matter what's thrown at you, if you can't stay positive, you're just a loser.

The list goes on, and I'd love to hear who makes YOUR list of positive, inspirational people, rather than spending time talking about the frailty of even the strongest people.

Finally, thank you for the phone call, and everyone who posted should know, and realize that we've all miscommunicated in an instant message, text, or... post on a forum page.  Sometimes what we write doesn't come out exactly how it was intended.  Man... I hope this does.  The originator of the post was trying to initiate a discussion on how to help the swimmers; ultimately, it got a bit sidetracked.  Turns out we're all after the same thing.  Communication is a good thing.  

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