There's not much Michael Phelps hasn't done or accomplished at the Olympics. His 18 gold medals, 22 overall medals and five swimming appearances are all records and he'll seek to add to his overall haul beginning on Saturday. But, oddly, there's one simple thing Phelps has never done at the Games. On Friday, he's going to change that, in style.
Team USA voted Phelps the flagbearer for the Rio Opening Ceremony, one of the great honors that can be afforded to an athlete competing under any flag. And, amazingly, when Phelps carries the red, white and blue into the Maracana, it'll be the first time he's ever participated in an Opening Ceremony.
The reasoning behind his previous four Opening Ceremony no-shows is clear: The swimming competition starts hours after the Opening Ceremony ends and to stand for hours the night before you start your Olympics isn't the most advisable training regimen.
"You’re on your legs for like six or seven hours and it’s a long night," he told NBC. "The U.S. is one of the last teams to come out. It’s a lot of standing around. I haven’t really wanted to do it because I was so focused on some of the other events that I was swimming."
This year is a little different, though. Phelps isn't swimming the 400 IM for the first time since 2000 and that event starts Saturday morning, hours after he'd be getting in from the Ceremony. (It doesn't hurt that swimming heats start later in Rio.) He also seems more interested in taking in the Olympic experience rather than putting his singular focus on the pool. (And who knows, maybe that laid-back outlook will help?)
How has Phelps, the greatest Olympian of all, managed to avoid an honor that fits him so naturally? It was never the right time. In 2000, Phelps was a 15-year-old swimming one event (though he did so with the eyes of the swimming world upon him). In 2004, he was too young. (Dawn Staley, going for her third Olympic basketball medal, was tabbed with the honor.) In 2008, the pressure of his eight golds outweighed the honor he didn't deserve anyway, as Team USA voted Lopez Lomong, a Sudanese immigrant who was one of the country's famed Lost Boys. And in 2012, Phelps was coming off his famous bong photo and brushes with the law. He was a man in search of redemption, but nobody's ideal of a hero. (Affable, experienced and decorated fencer Mariel Zagunis was picked by teammates.)