6 Spiritual Lessons Learned from Watching Michael Phelps

Soon before the Olympic Games in Rio started, Pope Francis expressed his hope that they would inspire all to “fight the good fight.”

I have been inspired thoroughly. The Games have even taught me a number of spiritual lessons.

Lesson #1: You can’t always get what you want.

I live in Beirut. Due to the time zone differences, I figured that setting my internet browser favorites to follow Rio 2016 was the most feasible way to follow the Olympics games. I have an unlimited internet connection, and if one could win gold medals for consuming YouTube videos, I would be the next Michael Phelps.

Early in these Olympics, I saw on the news that Phelps won a gold medal. I then searched YouTube to see this moment of glory, when he contributed to the winning US 4×100 freestyle relay.

Damn it! I could not find any of the videos. It seems that the gigantic broadcasting company covering the games banned others from even watching the highlights of this international festival.

Lesson #2: Life includes both peaks and valleys.

In my long search to try to see some highlights, I stumbled upon several articles about Phelps’s personal life.

I came to know that he not only retired following the 2012 Olympics but that he had been struggling on a personal level. The ESPN story about the evolution of Michael Phelps showed the life behind the scenes of his heroic career.

Phelps has a complex personality. His father was absent starting at the age of nine. He was then surrounded by fame and overwhelmed with money, but he also drowned in mistakes, many of them during his golden era. This drove him more into despair; he even had thoughts of ending his life.

Lesson #3: Sharing our struggles gives us hope.

Reflecting on the difficult parts of Phelps’s journey during these days when Phelps added more and more golds to his brilliant career made me appreciate him even more. It was more inspirational for me to know that he has not always been perfect.

I don’t really connect with the stories of saints who seem so perfect that they are almost inhuman. But I love a guy like Ignatius. He had a long journey of ups and downs to say the least, but God was able to use him to inspire millions — including me!

Lesson #4: It’s not always golden.

No matter how many gold medals someone wins, one will find him/herself in lesser positions sometimes. Moreover, you may reach them before you can gain your first gold medal — in the Olympics, or in life. Phelps finished 5th in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney and gained a couple of bronze medals in Athens in 2004. All he needed was consistency to make his legacy truly legendary (8 golds in Beijing in 2008).

Lesson #5: If you want to go far, go with others.

Not all of Phelps’s success came as an individual; much of it has been done as part of a team. 12 out of his 28 Olympic medals (42 %) were won as part of relays. Sometimes, you need the community to achieve your goals. Only with a community — by supporting, sharing and encouraging you to go further — can you find the difference between winning and glory.

Lesson #6: You never know how you may influence others.

Social media recently blew up with a photo of a 9-year-old Katie Ledecky from 10 years ago getting the autograph of Michael Phelps. The now-19-year-old Ledecky just won 4 golds and 1 silver at Rio 2016, and she has already become another legend. Phelps is known for his inspirational role in US and international athleticism. He not only inspired the little Katie indirectly, but he also found a self-named swimming school to promote healthy living and water safety for a new generation.   

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Sports and the spiritual life have a lot in common. They ask for a sort of sacrifice (determination and consistency) to achieve further goals. They push you to reconcile with your own limitations in order to live a joyful life, no matter what the results will be.

This why I stayed awake until 4:12 a.m to watch the 100m butterfly, a competition that lasted less than a minute. Knowing that I could not watch the highlights on YouTube, I had to see this live for myself.

And what happened? Phelps won the silver, not the gold. But in celebrating the success of Joseph Schooling, the 21-year-old winner from Singapore, Phelps followed Francis’ recommendation to “fight the good fight.”

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