The now-infamous picture in “News of the World” magazine worth 1,000 words – and, as it will probably turn out, millions of dollars in lost revenue – showed Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps smoking marijuana from an oversized pipe, known in slang as a “bong,” during a party in South Carolina.
At first, many figured it was a silly stunt, or perhaps someone had played games superimposing Phelps’ headshot onto the body of a person indulging in an illegal activity. Surely that would undoubtedly cause a few spastic double-takes if connected to a man who swallowed eight gold medals in the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, China.
As it turned out, the picture wasn’t a gag. It was real. And soon after it was published, Phelps, who four years earlier at the age of 19 was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol, admitted that it was he who “stupidly smoked pot” with a few people at a party and, perhaps even more stupidly, “did not realize” that someone might have access to a camera.
“I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment,” Phelps said in a statement. “I’m 23 years old and despite the successes I’ve had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again.”
So what about the local swimmers who haven’t quite reached the age of 23? Most offered similar sentiments that ranged in emotion from disappointment to shock.
“I was definitely disappointed,” said La Salle College High School senior Jim Mahoney. “That was a really poor decision on his part. I mean, he is the figure for swimming; he literally represents swimming, and he pulls something like that?”
Mahoney said he hopes this blemish doesn’t permanently wreak havoc with Phelps’ swimming career because he is a “big fan of his athleticism.” However, Mahoney said that if Phelps is unable to avoid a lifetime of scrutiny, he has no one to blame but himself.
“It goes to show that if you use drugs, you will lose one way or another,” said Mahoney. “He is paying the price already by losing his sponsorships. Everyone makes mistakes, but when you are a star like that, your poor choices are magnified. He did own up to it, so I give him credit for that. But still, it’s just extremely disappointing.”
La Salle teammate Mike McGee, a senior, didn’t believe it was true at first.
“You don’t usually see someone in that type of shape doing something that dumb,” said McGee. “He has worked his whole life becoming as physically fit as possible, and to take a chance and do something that unhealthy is really difficult to understand.”
Chris Smith, a 2008 graduate of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School and now a swimmer at Ursinus College following a standout high school career, hopes that ultimately there will be something positive connected to Phelps’ irresponsibility down the road.
For instance, Smith said, perhaps an up-and-coming athlete will think twice when confronted with the challenge of peer pressure.
“It’s tough when you’re growing up,” said Smith. “There is a lot of temptation to do this and that, but hopefully you have enough confidence and integrity to make good, smart decisions. In (Phelps’) case, only he knows why he did it. But he is old enough to know right from wrong, so he has to be accountable for the fallout.”
Although Smith acknowledged that some college students – and high school students as well – “obviously smoke pot now and then,” it is particularly odd when a person with the mentality of a swimmer chooses to take such a chance with their bodies.
“One of the advantages of growing up as a swimmer is that you learn how important it is to make good decisions with your health,” said Smith. “You learn to exercise, get enough sleep and eat the right foods. When someone with that mentality decides to smoke pot, it’s shocking.”
A report from a South Carolina sheriff on Tuesday said Phelps will not be charged with a crime. Phelps again responded that he regrets his actions.
“It’s all about recognizing that I used bad judgment, and it’s a mistake I won’t make again,” Phelps said in a statement. “For young people especially – be careful about the decisions you make. One bad decision can really hurt you and the people you care about.”
A couple of La Salle swimmers and a former swimmer from the Prep could have offered Phelps that advice a long time ago.
John Knebels can be reached at email@example.com.