As the 2012 Summer Olympics approached, I had the fun task of compiling a list of the Michigan athletes that were headed across the pond to compete.
So I checked out MGoBlue.com’s roster of all the Michigan affiliates headed to London and found a list of 28 names complete with their countries, events and affiliation with the University in a simple table on the website.
Copy, paste, add a brief bio and publish the story, right?
Not so fast. While it’s important to recognize that Michigan coaches going to London put in the same amount of time and effort into training their athletes, it’s essential to celebrate the athletic accomplishments of the student-athletes who will run, swim and vault in the Summer Olympics instead.
That eliminates a number of coaches, assistant or otherwise, leaving a handful of names. And I thought to myself, “I wonder if the Michigan athletic community embraces Michael Phelps as a Michigan athlete, since he trained in Ann Arbor for several years.”
I scrolled down to the swimmers and saw Phelps’ name on the list. But beside his name was his affiliation with the University: a volunteer coach from 2005 to 2008, not ‘varsity letterwinner.’ That nixed his name from my list.
True, Phelps came to Ann Arbor to train with coach Bob Bowman after Bowman was hired as the men’s swimming coach in 2004. True, Phelps did enroll in classes at the University — but not to pursue a degree — and served as the volunteer coach while training with Club Wolverine under Bowman.
Phelps was a student, yes, but not a student-athlete.
Phelps was never offered a scholarship to Michigan, nor was he ever recruited to swim for the Wolverines. He never took to the pool for a Big Ten meet, and he never experienced the camaraderie and teamwork that Peter Vanderkaay or Connor Jaeger felt when they competed for national titles in a Michigan swim cap.
So if Phelps was never actually on the swim team despite being a student, why should he be included in the list of Michigan athletes at the Olympics?
Many people and places — including Bentley Historical Library’s page compiling the entire list of Michigan athletes’ all-time Olympic appearances — claim Phelps as a Wolverine, citing his block ‘M’ tattoo on his lower abdomen and his brief stint taking classes in Ann Arbor as reasons why he should be a part of the list.
It’s almost like the Michigan community is calling Phelps one of its own just to boast the most decorated Olympian ever as a fellow Wolverine. Because of that slight connection, an average fan or old alum can say they have a connection to Phelps that everyone else doesn’t, and that Michigan has the “leaders and best” because Phelps is just like them — a true Wolverine.
But Phelps wasn’t among the thousands of student-athletes who put in innumerable hours in the pool, not to mention the countless hours sitting in the Academic Center or the UGLi doing homework. Those student-athletes are not only training for their Big Ten seasons, but also working hard for a degree that many of them will actually put to use once their days as an athlete are over.
I’m not trying to undermine Phelps’ athletic talent at all — he is an exceptional athlete, no doubt, and has achieved a feat that will probably never come close to being matched. Phelps swam his way to 22 Olympic medals and countless world records, but for the Michigan fan base to claim him as one of their own is unfair to the rest of the true student-athletes that don the maize and blue both in the classroom and on the field.
—Thomas is still #TeamPhelps. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @colleenthomas_