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Michael Phelps

Ultimate Teammate…
The truly great will assume whatever role is necessary for the team to win…

He was the star of the Olympic Games – a young man about whom so many words were written, that coming up with a new superlative to describe him is practically impossible. And his legacy will live on even after his world records are surpassed, because one thing I’ve noticed while watching Michael Phelps win – in close races, in blowouts, by himself and as a team member – is that he embodies nearly every one of the sixteen characteristics of Greatness that you’ll find in true champions. He livesnearly every one of the characteristics – the adversity he battled growing up, the practice sessions he endures routinely, the life that he’s grown to lead. He is truly great.

But the one characteristic that I enjoy most about Phelps was realized during my interview with him at the Athens Olympics in 2004. In front of a live audience, Phelps admitted to me that, although he had found his niche in a sport largely dominated by individuals, he enjoys being a member of a team more than anything else.

phelps 2It’s why he gets more joy out of victories in relays, in which he’s only a part of the success, than he does in the individual Golds that he achieves. He said it then, but I, like most of America, saw it vividly when he and his teammates, Jason Lezak, Cullen Jones and Garrett Weber, beat the French in the 4×100 meter freestyle relay in one of the closest races in Beijing and in swimming history.

Michael Phelps’ excitement on the pool deck was almost childlike, and certainly not like anything you would expect of a man who is now considered among the greatest Olympic athletes ever. He was real. He was raw. If you phelps 3watched his reaction and his celebration when Jason Lezak kicked it in high gear and passed Alain Bernard, the trash-talking Frenchman, it clearly wasn’t about securing Phelps own place in history. It was about winning as a team. Yet winning as a team did secure his place in history, and, in that way, it was awesome for us to watch and for him to achieve.

Phelps’ said in Athens, “I enjoy relays more than any other part of swimming because I enjoy needing and being needed.”

Michael Phelps can accomplish a lot of things alone, but he can’t win a relay alone.

In post race interviews from Beijing, each of his fellow American swimmers said that Phelps was one of the greatest teammates one could ask for. He never sought the spotlight – though the spotlight was always shining on him. He shared praise, he knew how to contribute his part – never considering it more valuable than his teammates’ – and he performed at the highest level when the highest level was required of him. Phelps, who won eight total and five individual gold medals in Beijing this year, stands out to me as the Ultimate Teammate.

And despite the pressure, fame and fortune which surround him, Phelps has remained seemingly unaffected.

At the very end of our interview in Athens, I asked him, “Michael. Why, after winning six gold medals, and standing on stage watching the US flag being raised six times, have we never seen you sing the National Anthem?”

In that moment, many athletes would have come up with some contrived answer. But Michael Phelps was as true then as I think he was throughout the Beijing Olympics. Showing great honesty and humility, he looked right at me and said, “I don’t sing because I know the cameras will be on me and I’m afraid I’ll forget the words.” The audience rose with applause, thanking Phelps for his Greatness… and his honesty.

Tips From the Great Ones

The truly great understand that no matter how gifted you are individually, you can never achieve Greatness alone.

U.S. swimmer and all-time Olympian Michael Phelps poses exclusively for Sports IllustratedMichael Phelps would not have won eight gold medals, setting a bar no one may ever match, without competing in relays. In order for him to set this new standard – surpassing the record seven Gold Medals won by Mark Spitz 36 years earlier – he was forced to rely on the success of his teammates. And if he was going to be part of a team, he was going to completely immerse himself in the experience. He understood that his role was not just to swim as fast as he could, but to encourage and inspire his teammates to do their best, as well. When Lezak began making gains on Bernard, Phelps was screaming louder than anyone on the pool deck, or anyone in the stands.

His passion for his teammates was real. His excitement for their collective achievement was real – they all felt that – which made Team USA all the more enthusiastic about helping Phelps reach his individual place in history.

XII FINA World Championships - SwimmingIf you are ever to achieve greatness, you must realize that the highest level of success can never be accomplished alone. Your team includes not only your boss and colleagues, but your friends, significant others, parents, even the next door neighbor who always gives good advice. And the only way to ensure that those around you will continue to look out for your best interest is to share your enthusiasm for them and share your success – and credit – with them.

Voice your appreciation for them as often as possible. Most of the time this is as simple as saying ‘Thank You’ or offering to take more than your share of the workload when they’ve had a rough day.

Though most team players would never admit it, they appreciate when they’re publicly acknowledged for their role in your success or achievement. Sometimes that means screaming it at the top of your lungs for all to hear. Sometimes it’s giving them a small gift or award. Sometimes it’s just a handshake and a smile. But it is always appreciated.

So be enthusiastic. Show appreciation. Share your achievement with the ones who propel you forward. And you’ll be one step closer to Greatness.

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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