Michael Phelps: The Greatest Olympian of All Time

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This past weekend we saw Michael Phelps win his 22nd Olympic medal, earning him the title “Greatest Olympian of All Time.” What does that incredible achievement mean for the other athletes who compete in these and future games? How can they or any of the rest of us ever expect to be “the greatest”?


In sports, it is often easy to identify the great ones. The numbers tell the story. The greatest have faster times, more hits, longer leaps or higher scores than the rest. It makes it easy for us to identify the best.

In music, greatness is usually more subjective. Who was the greatest composer, Bach or Beethoven? Or Mozart? We can point to the numbers of pieces written, or the age of their earliest achievements or the enduring nature of their work, but in the end, “the greatest” is a matter of opinion.

But whether your hero is Mozart or Phelps, there is a question you must answer if you wish to achieve: do the greatest give you inspiration or present you with impossible standards to meet?

Here are a few thoughts to consider.

1. Records are made to be broken. An old saying, but still true. For forty-eight years, Larisa Latynina, was “the greatest.” A former Soviet gymnast, she held the title of the world’s most decorated Olympian since 1964, when she won her 18th Olympic medal. She doesn’t look on Phelps’s achievement with bitterness, but rather with congratulations and a wish: “That he doesn’t look back into the past at his records, but remains a normal, good, kind person. Because that’s the most important thing in life.”

When anyone sets a record, it immediately sets a challenge as well. It not only sets a new bar of achievement, but presents a new opportunity for others who follow. There is now a new goal, a place for them to set their sights. And if that goal is yours, go for it!

2. Greatness is not unique. Despite Muhammad Ali’s nickname, there is not only one “The Greatest.” There is a practically endless list of possibilities for greatness, even in a small area of endeavor. Guinness World Records 2011 has 288 pages of world records declaring the latest “greatests.” Surely there is room in the universe for one more.

3. Your greatness lies in doing what you love. For most of us, world-class achievement is not our primary goal. Most of us simply desire to do something well, to learn something new, to be a positive force in our sphere of influence. Developing our individual strengths and making that strength our contribution to others is in itself a great act. The Nike video above says it perfectly: Find Your Greatness.

4. Individual achievement is an act of generosity. Though we often perceive achievement as the striving of one person to “make a name for himself,” achievement is not a self-centered act. The accomplishments of any individual bring honor to all of us. They illuminate the story that is the history of humankind with marvelous examples of courage, determination and fortitude. Their stories become a part of us. A piece of their success lives inside of us as part of the human connection we share.

Discussion question: When you look around you, where do you see greatness?

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