This is a letter from Michael Phelps addressed to future Olympians. It moved me to tears, and I hope you will be touched by the truth and harshness.
"I hope that you do what I have done.
I hope you go from “just” an Olympic athlete one year,
To a household name four years later,
To a record breaker in another four,
To the greatest in four more.
I hope that you beat me. I hope you earn twenty-three medals.
I hope all of them are gold.
And I know now that you are just a kid, and these are just dreams,
But your dreams will become real before you even know what has happened.
And when they do, be thrilled. And, please, please, watch out.
Watch out, because when you are still a child they will call you “hero”
And you won’t know how to be one yet.
They will make you the great hope,
The American dream,
But you will think that all you have done is beat another country by one one hundredth of a second.
And you will know that you could have lost to that country.
And, some day, you will.
But they will understand that you have done something bigger.
You, who have risen above your parent’s divorce, will show a young man that his father moving out doesn’t have to be the end of the world.
You, who have focused even when your mental disorder has said you shouldn’t be able to, will show a recently diagnosed teenager that she can do what her brain chemistry says she can not.
And only when you know this, when you know that your victory was a victory shared in every way by every person, will you know what it means to be a hero.
Watch out, because it turns out everyone wants to live to see the hero become the villain,
Because they will put you on the podium, and then they will tear you down in the tabloids and it will never be more clear to you that everything you do can be crime if it does not result in a gold medal hung around your neck.
And in the age of smart phones and compact cameras, you behaving like someone your own age will damn you.
And your childish mistakes, the mistakes of a man who is still young enough to make them, the mistakes that will not stop you from being the best,
Will let down people that have looked up to you.
And this knowledge will hurt worse than any criticism by your coach, or any medal-less race.
And nobody will understand that you are still young enough to need someone to look up to.
And being the best means that you will have no heroes left, and the people you watched on television as a boy, are now watching you beat their records,
And you can not be your own hero.
And nobody will know how badly the hero needs a hero to tell him that it’s okay that he made a mistake or two.
Nobody will know that the hero is sometimes still just a gawky little boy.
Watch out because the best will never be enough, and you will still think of all the things you could have done better, all the times you could have pushed harder, even when you are holding a gold medal in your hands.
And even when you beat world records you will always think that you could have beat them by more. You will think that you are supposed to be inhuman, when you are still young enough to be on your parent’s health insurance.
And you will understand that twelve thousand calories a day and eight gold medals doesn’t make you a man. That being a hero doesn’t make you a man, that being over six feet tall and living on your own doesn’t make you a man.
But becoming a hero again after you have been a fallen idol, that just might.
Watch out because your career will probably end before you are thirty years old and you will spend the rest of your life wandering blindly, trying to find something to make you feel alive like you did for that one week every four years.
Watch out because someday somebody who looked up to you will beat you. And that will be more beautiful to you than any medal, and any national anthem.
Watch out because the only people who can truly understand you are also the only people who can truly beat you.
Watch out because people will hate you and you will never know why, and people will idolize you and you will never know how to be who they think you are.
Watch out, because with all you have sacrificed, and all you will continue to sacrifice, you can not yet see that your biggest sacrifice will be when you decide it is time to stop sacrificing.
Watch out, because for all your training, for all the hours spent running a track, or swimming in a pool, or hitting a ball, or working with coaches, physical therapists, trainers and specialists, there will still be one walk you will never be able to train for.
It will be worse than the first time you trained so hard that you threw up.
It will be worse than all the times you couldn’t hang out with your friends because you had to practice.
It will be worse than looking at your name in the number four spot.
It will be the only walk you ever have to take completely alone, and all the screaming in the stands, and all your team mates right behind you, and even all the love your mom and sister are pouring towards you will not make it any less lonely.
Because even the greatest of the greats retires alone.
The hardest walk you will ever have to make will be the last walk you make from the podium to the dressing room.
And if you have accomplished your goals, if you have changed your sport, if you have inspired others, if you have brought a nation to their feet, if you have done what I have done,
It will be something beautiful and tragic
It will be the end of an era.
But watch out, because knowing that will not make this walk any less impossible to make."