Nature and Nurture
Updated: May 21
Michael Phelps was 15 when he swam in his first Olympics; over the course of four summer games he won 22 medals, including 18 gold, which makes him the most decorated Olympian in the history of EVER.
He came out of retirement last year announcing plans to compete in Rio this summer; he’s said to be swimming better and faster now, at the age of 30, than he ever has before.
Reporters love to talk about how, physically, Phelps seems cosmically suited to his sport. He swims with the power and stealth of a guided missile apparently because he has feet like flippers, disproportionately-short but powerful legs, a 6’7” wingspan that exceeds his height by three inches, and hands as big as trashcan lids.
We’ve been gifted with what we need to be sons and daughters of the living God. But it’s up to us to walk in that identity.
Double-jointed elbows, knees and ankles are credited with giving him his freakish flexibility. His long, broad-shouldered torso has been compared to the hull of a boat because it seems tailor-made to ride high in the water.
Also, he naturally uses more aerobic energy than muscle power, so he has greater endurance and recovers from exertion more quickly than other competitors. In fact, it’s been said that his body appears to continue recovering from one event as he’s swimming the next one.
Obviously, the sport of swimming didn’t afford him these very particular traits. He was born with them. And they’d still be his even if he sat around every day eating Cheetos and playing Call of Duty.
But what a waste that would be.
Phelps began swimming when he was a hyperactive 7-year-old, afraid to put his face in the water. When he was 12, he started working with his coach, Bob Bowman; for six years, he didn't skip a day of training. In the water before sunup, he practiced five hours every day, swimming grueling sets of laps and working out with parachutes, kick boards, fins, floats, paddles and limb-disabling bands. At the peak of his training, he was swimming about 50 miles a week.
That's like swimming from Fayetteville to Eureka Springs every seven days.
Cameras mounted above and below the water recorded his laps so Bowman could analyze and correct every imperfection. Out of the water, Phelps relentlessly ran, cycled, lifted weights and did push-ups, weighted pull-ups and Pilates. He also pushed through well-publicized struggles with alcohol, gambling, crippling shame and self-doubt.
Michael Phelps has been gifted with what he needs to be a great swimmer. But it’s up to him to walk in that identity.
I think this is part of what Paul is telling us in his letter to the Colossians: We’ve been gifted with what we need to be sons and daughters of the living God. But it’s up to us to walk in that identity.
Colossians 1:13-14 says, “God rescued us from dead-end alleys and dark dungeons. He’s set us up in the Kingdom of the Son He loves so much, the Son who got us out of the pit we were in, got rid of the sins we were doomed to keep repeating.”
That’s His gift to every follower of Christ. And it’s ours, even if we never embrace Paul’s instruction about how to live fully and abundantly, in obedience to Him. After all, obedience to Jesus Christ requires discipline, intent, selflessness, patience, submission, sacrifice. It’s rarely easy, comfortable or safe. We have to face our pain, prejudices, addictions and dysfunction. Seek healing. Receive grace.
Languishing in the “feed me” stage of belief is way less taxing and complicated.
But what a waste that would be.
Felley Lawson lives in Fayetteville.