Way to go, young Michael - but don't let the gold tarnish

August 19, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

I SIT IN FRONT of a Sony television set -- do I get paid for mentioning the brand? -- a few blocks from where Michael Phelps grew up. I'm telling you, Rodgers Forge is going to be on the National Register of Historic Places because of this, and you won't be able to buy a house there! -- and what I want to tell the kid is: Don't blow it. Please, don't blow it.

Or, to employ the positive voice, maybe what I want to say is something like: Michael, so far, fantastic. Now, make an opportunity out of an opportunity, and in a way your accountant can't measure.

Give me two minutes with Baltimore's -- or, at least, Towson's -- most famous athlete of the 21st century, and that's what I tell him.

Michael Phelps has gold in his hands, literally and figuratively, and you'd like to see it stay there, particularly if you're from Baltimore and you're feeling some hometown pride for the tall teenager from Rodgers Forge who is setting the waters of Athens on fire.

You go, bro'.

We're all rooting for you.

We're all pretty amazed. You swim like a dolphin and the underwater camera shots prove it. You have talent on loan from God, lungs on loan from Flipper, ears on loan from Prince Charles and, speaking of loans, can I borrow $6,000 for basement waterproofing?

And by the way, kid: Don't blow it.

I'm not talking about the quest for more gold in Athens.

I'm not talking about the next race.

I'm talking about the stuff you can't put your hands on or throw around your neck, stuff that may be beyond the grasp of a 19-year-old who's led a life obsessed with swimming and training for the Olympics.

I'm talking about a special kind of heroism that transcends the athletic accomplishments.

Pardon me if I get a little big-brotherly here.

I happen to think Michael Phelps is having a big impact on kids, particularly boys and girls his age and younger, and this is a good time to think about what's happening these two weeks in Greece in a context larger than sports and TV commercials.

Yeah, it's cool that Phelps has a Cadillac Escalade and that he digs on Eminem. Kids are tuned into that. They are feeding on his quest and his fame, and not just because it's August and they're bored. It's because they admire a genuine American hero, someone who obviously pushed himself to the outer limits to achieve greatness.

Thank you, Michael.

We need our heroes as big as we can get them because, everywhere you turn, there are the charred remains of sports, Hollywood or Wall Street luminaries who crashed and burned, or who were at least scarred by scandal or stupidity or greed. (The Ravens' running back Jamal Lewis hasn't been convicted of anything yet -- he's considered innocent until proven self-destructive -- but the story has already left a bad feeling among kids who regarded this guy as the next big thing in Baltimore sports.)

So, kids need heroic adventure. They need to go on a journey with someone they admire. It's happened before. It's happening again this summer.

I needed a little heroic pick-me-up myself, and Michael Phelps is providing it. (I was crushed by the verdict against Martha, you know. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?)

If you're from Baltimore, you savor this kind of international attention for your city (or at least Towson!) and you relish someone from our region being recognized for something that doesn't involve homicide, drug addiction, venereal disease. The last time the National Broadcasting Corporation offered programming that mentioned Baltimore this much, it was called Homicide: Life on the Street.

Michael Phelps is negotiating the turns to Mount Olympus pretty well. He was gracious in accepting bronze-place finishes in two events, and Tuesday in the 800 freestyle relay he looked like a genuine team guy.

So he's got gold in his hands.

All this money. All this fame.

And in this age in which we live, with temptations to be grotesque and stupid all about, what you want to tell this kid is: Don't blow it. Continue to be admirable. Make sure kids admire you because you're a great young man, not just a great swimmer.

And come back to Baltimore. We can use you here.

Start your own swim team -- in the city, with the kids who need a boost the most. Maybe you slip some money into the renovation of one of Baltimore's municipal pools, or you help build a world-class training complex in, say, Patterson Park. I can pretty much see it already: The Michael Phelps Aquatic Center, right near the Mimi DiPietro Family Skating Center. Maybe in a generation or two, combined with the efforts of the North Baltimore club that brought you to this dance, this city becomes the competitive swimming capital of North America.

And then there's the Chesapeake Bay. Hey, Michael, the Visa commercial where you swim across the Atlantic to the Statue of Liberty -- great stuff. But how about taking part in the next Chesapeake Bay swim? We'll even rename it the Michael Phelps Chesapeake Bay Swim, drawing international attention to the need to clean and preserve that great estuary.

Maybe all this activism helps the Baltimore area gain the Summer Games in some far-off year.

You've got gold in your hands. Robert Frost said that nothing gold can stay. Here's a chance to prove that dead poet was all wet.

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