It really irked me when Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu, (the “Iron Lady”) obliterated the world record in the 400-meter individual medley and won three gold medals — yet an announcer credited her husband as “the person responsible for her performance.”
That’d be like the commentators calling Phelps “the fiancé of Miss California USA 2010” (his wife, Nicole, was Miss California) when he won his 20th gold medal. Can you imagine? Nope, neither can I.
That’s because we celebrate men and women who achieve remarkable success — very differently. It’s one of those unconscious biases that we can’t see, but exists. When men achieve greatness, we celebrate the achievement. When women achieve greatness, we marvel, question and wonder how she achieved it “how DOES she do it?” It’s a subtle but real difference.
Just imagine if Phelps were a woman. How different the tone and tenor would be in discussing her accomplishments — and this could come particularly from women:
Michaela Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time. 21 gold medals and counting. (By the way, who’s watching her kids?) Multiple world records. (Wait, didn’t she go to rehab?) And, her baby is way cuter than yours and already has an Instagram account with 200,000 followers! (What mother pimps their own kid? I bet those flag headphones he wore were from a sponsor!).
Between the big ticket sponsorships, the perfect abs, the picture on the Wheaties box, the supportive, gorgeous fiancé, and an adorable baby boy, named — it’s all too amazing — “Boomer,” It would be all too much for a lot of us to stand.
But we’re not done! Have we mentioned she is a perfect specimen for swimming — has the wingspan of a condor, abs like a car radiator and legs of steel, joints that hyperextend, perfect body proportions and size 14 feet; that’s some spectacular DNA when milliseconds matter. Remember that dramatic finish in the Beijing 100 meter in 2008 when she won the gold by an inch? (I hated her manicure at that meet; it didn’t match the uniform) Have we mentioned how DOES she do it?
I could rattle off a long list of women at the top of their game — Sheryl Sandberg, Gisele Bundchen, Megyn Kelly — and they would all tell you that the higher they climb, the more the critique they receive becomes personal — about their bodies, their personal lives and how they parent. Trump dismissed Carly Fiorina that exact way: “that face.”
I happen to be in awe of Phelps and the guy deserves everything he has because he has worked his ass off. I am using Phelps to make a point:
That we observe the success of men and women differently. That all too often we are jealous of a dominant woman’s ability to “have it all.” Or we pass the credit to someone else, like they did with Housszu.
The truth is, there is no success in life without hard work. And men and women become successful the exact same way.
If you wonder how Phelps does it, the answer is straightforward: He follows a winning formula that works for everyone. It’s a simple formula but it’s not easy. It requires focus, determination, hard work, a tight support team and tens of thousands of hours of practice honing one’s craft. Forget that 10,000 hour rule that Malcolm Gladwell talked about in “Outliers,” Phelps and Hosszu have probably spent 100k in the pool. Just like your favorite superstars, artists, geniuses and business owners have spent those same hours on their craft.
It is the same, whether it’s a phenomenon like Phelps, or the more typical Olympic athlete who earns $15,000 a year and goes into debt getting to the Olympics.
At the end of the day, the person who is responsible for your success and your failures is you. Do you need support? Yes. Does it help to have an awesome coach and a loving family? Absolutely. Does your family make sacrifices as you pursue your dreams? They sure do.
But to be great — you will need the same thing that made Phelps a legend — the ability to kick your own ass over and over again.
The cyborg physique helps, but it ain’t required; just ask Steph Curry or Gabby Douglas. I just wish we’d cheer the same for them all, because they sure do deserve it.