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Michael Phelps – in the drink

  Michael Phelps being honored by his native Maryland in 2009

Michael Phelps being honored by his native Maryland in 2009

Well, it hasn’t been a very good day for swimming, has it?

Michael Phelps – the most decorated Olympian to date, with 22 medals, 18 gold – was charged with driving under the influence early Tuesday morning, crossing double lanes and clocking in at 84 mph in 45-mph Fort McHenry Tunnel in his hometown of Baltimore. His blood alcohol level was .14. (The legal limit in Maryland is .08.) A trial has been set for Nov. 19.

Complicating matters for Phelps is that this isn’t his first DUI arrest. That was in 2004 when he was 19. In 2009, the Internet had a field day with pictures of him smoking a marijuana pipe. A judge might very well set Phelps’ celebrity aside – or even make an example of it – and sentence him to jail time. And he could lose his license. Maybe he should, or at the very least be forced to install one of those devices that disables cars that drunk drivers enter.

Of course, that wouldn’t stop him from getting behind the wheel of another car. One of the reasons drunk drivers are so dangerous is that they’re not thinking clearly. They think they’re fine. They may think they’re better than fine. (Some people drink to excess, because they think they can control anything.)

But they can’t and he can’t. It’s ironic, isn’t it? Someone who was disciplined enough to win eight golds in Beijing. Yet he can’t hold his liquor. Maybe it’s because he’s so disciplined in his swimming that he feels entitled to cut loose in his private life. But there’s a vast difference between splurging on an ice-cream sundae or a new outfit and hitting the booze. And part of what makes an alcoholic just that is that he or she doesn’t understand that.

So many thoughts come to mind with this disappointing news. Phelps is a role model, some say. He isn’t a role model, others counter. Of course, he’s a role model. You don’t get to choose that. It’s chosen for you. We’re all role models to someone, and we have an obligation to our communities, our professions, ourselves. That’s something that the heroes of my new novel “Water Music,” part of my series “The Games Men Play,” get.

But what’s really fascinating in all this is just how wondrous and limited the mind really is. Here’s Phelps, so brilliant and so dense. And here’s his friend and rival Ryan Lochte – less talented and successful, supposedly stupid and certainly not as articulate as, say, tennis star Novak Djokovic, who can articulate his thoughts in five languages. And yet, in his own way, Lochte gets it. After Phelps’ arrest, TMZ Sports contacted him.

"I'm not concerned,” Lochte said. “He just makes dumb decisions. He has so much money to get a driver. I even have a driver. Just stinks for the sport of swimming." 

That last part is certainly true. Just as some people think football players are no-neck neo-Neanderthals because of the NFL’s domestic abuse crisis, there will be those whose view of male swimmers as stoner party boys will be reinforced by this. But what Lochte may have meant is that Phelps might be suspended from swimming.

He added, though, that Phelps, who has apologized, “will become smarter from this. Luckily he did not hurt himself or someone else."

But haven’t we heard all this before? It remains to be seen if Phelps becomes wiser because of this experience. For now, “It’s déjà vu all over again,” as Yogi Berra liked to say.

Only no one’s laughing.