Everywhere Michael Phelps goes lately, including Texas on what was a juicy hot first weekend in June, people want a piece of him — his signature, his photographic likeness, his advice, his time.
He mostly obliges, thanking them for whatever kind words they impart about London 2012 or wishing them luck in whatever looming personal endeavors they told him of, which usually are swim meets for their kids.
What he wants to scream at them is: Pay attention to 9-year-old Michael Phelps.
That is not his actual name. It is Aiden or Sam or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea. The point is there is a 9-year-old kid out there right now who could be the next Michael Phelps, except for the fact he does not have access to a pool in which to learn to swim, be able to cool off on a wickedly hot summer day, join a team or start down the path to becoming the greatest swimmer of the next generation.
Swim season is officially upon us in the United States, Memorial Day once marking an opening of pools across this country. Yet, in a lot of big cities, kids have limited or no access to public pools, and this is heartbreaking to Phelps.
"There are a lot of pools being shut down, and kids are not able to come out and enjoy it like I did growing up," Phelps said. "I think over time, hopefully, I will have the opportunity to make an impact to cities and states all over the world and hopefully be able to change that."
Pools are one of the first things to go in lean economic times. They are costly to maintain, and there is always an argument about how 100 things are more important than public pools.
In Fort Worth, where I live, one of those things is garbage police.
No, seriously, my hometown pays people to drive around and check to make sure you have pulled your garbage can behind your house in a timely manner. If you do not, you get a ticket. I also know this to be true because our household received one of these.
This is why trash police are important. They make money for the city, whereas 9-year-old boys tend to vacuum it up. They need schooling and parks and pools, the very things we time and time again refuse to invest money in. The city has one pool, opened for this summer because there were so many complaints when none was open a year ago — when it was brutally hot, even by Texas standards.
The truth is we are a country that has a hard time putting our money where we say our priorities lie. Banks are too big to fail, but schools are not. Obesity is an epidemic, but physical activity is not worth investing in. Nothing is more important than kids except the 457 other things we seem to value more than them judging by the way we spend public money.
"It is like everything else in politics," Phelps coach and Team USA boss Bob Bowman said. "And it is not just swimming or pools, it is physical education in general. It is crazy to me that we don’t value it more."
It is not like we do not have money for sports. Texas is covered with football facilities, where only a few play and just about nobody does after the age of 35.
Swimming is not only a sport. It is also a life skill. Those who do not learn to swim are relegated to the sidelines at pool parties, at the ocean, in so many great moments that make this a wonderful life. Those kinds of places are fraught with danger for people who do not learn to swim, and their numbers are heavily weighted with the poor and with African-Americans.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the "unintentional drowning rate for African-Americans is significantly higher than that of whites and is widest among children ages 5-14 years old." Said another way, black kids are three times more likely to drown than white ones.
This is an epidemic and why the Michael Phelps Foundation partnered with the Boys & Girls Clubs. The hope is their involvement and financial assistance will get more kids swimming in pools and get more pools to open.
Its signature "im program" was launched in 2010, named after Phelps’ signature event, the individual medley. It also stands for "I am." What Phelps knows for sure is you cannot learn to swim if you do not have an open pool to practice in.
"I think, over time, we have been able to give the opportunity to more and more kids throughout the country to not only learn how to swim, but also experience the greatness of being able to have the pool, to go and hang out with your friends and relax in the summer and play around," Phelps said.
His foundation is trying to help more kids experience this greatness, but he cannot do it alone. As he prepares for London 2012, he does so hoping his legacy is more than gold medals, but using his name to give kids the opportunity he believes changed the trajectory of his life.
Everybody has heard Phelps’ story, how at age nine he was diagnosed with ADHD, how a teacher said he would never be able to focus. This was about the time he found his way into the pool. The Baltimore Aquatics Club is nothing fancy, but it is open, not just for swimming, but for training and teaching and becoming.
It is where Phelps became focused. It is where he became an Olympian. It is where Phelps became Phelps and, of course, it saddens him that opportunity might not be there for another kid.
So, as we watch and cheer and ask — for his signature, his photograph, his advice, his time — we also need to listen. He is asking for help, not for himself, but for the next 9-year-old Michael Phelps.