Millions of people tune in every day to watch his latest adventures. They analyze his facial expressions for drama, his body scars for plot points and he inspires more memes and hashtags than Donald Trump with a taco bowl. He is Michael Phelps, and right now, he is the best character on television.
Below, five reasons why a room full of highly paid writers working under Shonda Rhimes, Dick Wolf and Chuck Lorre couldn’t come up with a fictional character this entertaining. Every day in Rio, Phelps is his very own producer, script writer and leading man, and we can’t wait to see how the rest of this season plays out.
His opening credits
Every great TV show needs a memorable opening credits sequence, and what better spotlight could you have on you than the Olympics opening ceremony? Phelps was given the honor of carrying the U.S. flag, giving him the opportunity to somehow overshadow rainbow-colored tricycles and Gisele walking down a runway. The supporting players will be fun to watch too, the broadcast seemed to imply, but make no mistake — your leading man is the guy with the wide grin and red-white-and-blue flag.
Born in Baltimore, his parents divorced when he was nine years old, just around the same time his sisters encouraged him to take up the sport as an outlet for ADHD. Phelps spent countless hours in the pool, worked hard at his craft like any great American story, and at 15 became the youngest male to make an Olympic team in 68 years.
Phelps won his first Olympic medal in 2004 at age 19, and has since gone on to become the most decorated Olympian of all time with 21 gold, two silver and two bronze medals (as of this writing; subject to increase daily).
Adversity? He’s faced it. Rebellious streak? He has one. The guy even has commercial breaks built in. If a writer on a fictionalized TV show pitched Michael Phelps, it’s safe to say that the character would be shot down as too good to be true.
Batman found Robin as a young child and inspired him to be a crimefighter. On “Animal Kingdom,” the Cody clan are training young J to become their newest heist-executing family henchman. Similarly, Phelps seems to have created his own mini-me in Katie Ledecky.
The three-time Olympic gold medalist and nine-time world champion met Phelps in 2006, when she was just nine years old. Now she’s 19, dominating Rio alongside her idol and being called “The Next Michael Phelps.” Here he is, at the height of his own story, and Phelps already seems to be thinking spin-off.
Like The Penguin, Ramsay Bolton and Gavin Belson all rolled into one, Chad Guy Bertrand le Clos is the great antagonist every heroic story needs. In the 2012 Olympics, the South African swimmer edged out Phelps for the gold in the 200-meter butterfly; now, Phelps has vanquished his foe, retaking the butterfly crown and famously waving his finger.
Before this latest event, it was clear that both men were trying to make the other one blink, “Batman v Superman”-style. Actually, those two superheroes are supposed to be on the same team, so maybe that’s more like Phelps’ rivalry with Ryan Lochte.
His sense of drama
Phelps is built like an action figure, coming complete in the package with five-mile stare, the abs and the kung-fu grip that make him a perfect hero. In the Olympics, heroes are minted daily — but his sense of the grand stage, his mastery of technique and charm in interviews allows him to dominate the news cycle like a presidential candidate in a Speedo. He even knows how to break up the tension with a laugh.
Enjoy the Michael Phelps show while you can, folks, because who knows how many seasons the Olympian has left in him. For the time being, every race is an action scene, every interview brings precious plot points — and, of course, every new day in Rio seems to result in a Star Wars-like medal ceremony.