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Bill Plaschke: Michael Phelps can add flag bearer to his Olympic resume

By Bill Plaschke Los Angeles Times

RIO DE JANEIRO – The voting among USA Olympians for the honor of carrying the American flag in Friday’s opening ceremony came down to two disparate finalists.

One was a female Muslim fencer who will be the first American to wear an hijab at the Olympics.

The other was a swimmer with two DUI offenses who has twice been banned from the pool for violating USA Swimming’s code of conduct.

The winner, barely, was Michael Phelps, his record 18 gold medals trumping his past dangerous behavior, his comeback narrative overshadowing any uneasiness that the man leading 555-person American contingent into Rio’s Maracana Stadium was once universally known for a photo in which he was smoking a bong.

“To lead our country into this Olympics is something I honestly thought I would never have the opportunity to do,” Phelps said Wednesday.

If runner-up saber fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad had been selected, especially during this heated election-year climate, it would have made a resounding American statement about inclusiveness and diversity.

But Phelps’ selection makes an equally American statement about the power of forgiveness and the currency of achievement.

For far different reasons, both would have been appropriate winners. In vastly different ways, both truly represent the flag that Phelps will now bear.

“It just feels so right to have the most decorated Olympian of all time,” fellow swimming star Missy Franklin said of Phelps. “That’s what the USA is all about, that’s what being an American is all about.”

If being an American is about rising above the sins of your past, well, no competitive swimming pool is as deep as the muck from which Phelps has emerged.

Nearly two years ago, driving home from a casino in his native Baltimore, Phelps was arrested for allegedly driving 84 mph in a 45-mph zone. According to police he was driving erratically and failed two field sobriety tests. It led to his second DUI charge, his second swimming suspension – six months – and a 45-day stay in a residential treatment facility.

Obscured were the memories of his record eight gold medals in 2008 in Beijing. Muted were his numerous national endorsements. He began flopping around the gossip pages like, well, a fish out of water.

Phelps emerged from the Arizona facility on a mission to regain credibility and respect, not to mention his stroke. It has taken more than two years, but, with Wednesday’s announcement, he has clearly discovered all three.

“A dream come true,” he said of the flag responsibilities. “When one of our staff members told me, I had the biggest smile on my face you could possibly find … a little bit of emotion came over me, I probably shed a little bit of tears.”

There is probably some similar emotion from his fellow athletes who voted for Muhammad, who was viewed by a selection more in line with the Olympic ideal.

After all, this is Phelps’ fifth Olympics, yet this will be the first time he has even marched in the opening ceremony. He was always worried about the physical effect of spending a long night on his feet.

There was also word that Phelps was initially uncertain about accepting the swimming team’s nomination. He acknowledged he discussed fears about fatigue with USA men’s coach and his personal mentor Bob Bowman.

“I asked Bob on a scale of one to 10 how much it would affect me. I said ‘It’s like, 8.0, no question me doing it,” Phelps said. “He gave me 7.8. I’m like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ ”

Phelps finally decided, for once, for four hours on a Friday night, to temporarily forget about his body and focus on his legacy.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Phelps said. “I have to do it. I want to do it.”

Phelps previously has been known for his intense poolside focus and his goofy interview-room awkwardness. But Wednesday he seemed calmer, more assured, maybe even more mature. He said spending nearly two months at a treatment center has helped make that possible.

“It’s just given me a clear head . I’ve just really been able to enjoy life, that’s the easiest way to put it,” he said. “I’ve been able to experience things I didn’t really notice (and) kind of took for granted in the past. I’m a lot more open and relaxed now. I’m having fun again. I’m enjoying what I’m doing again.”

He and his fiancee Nicole Johnson, a former Miss California USA, have an infant son named Boomer, both of whom will be poolside here. He has young teammates who grew up wanting to be like him (Katie Ledecky once asked for his autograph) and teammates who even idolized him (Olivia Smoliga once had his poster on her wall). He’s in a good spot, even in the water, where he will have a decent chance to win at least two more medals here, adding to his record total of 22.

“I think I’m to the point, whatever is left here, to be able to turn the page and say I was able to finish my career the way I wanted to,” he said.

Muhammad, 30, whose parents originally signed her up for fencing because it was a sport that would allow her to wear her headscarf, is a uniquely American story. But, in a much different way, so is Phelps, who will bear this country’s testament to the power of change.

“This has to be one of the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “I’m leading, for me, the best country in the world.”

In a country of second chances, he has been given a golden one.

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