I admit it. I’m the guy who took that picture of Olympic hero Michael Phelps huffing on a bong. And then I sold it for some sweet economic stimulus to that English tabloid.
But I feel bad about it. I really do. I didn’t mean for Michael to get in trouble. I just wanted to encourage him to follow through on that deal we talked about the time he visited my grow-op out in Mendocino.
This was before he was famous, before he won his first six gold medals in Athens in 04. He was just 19, and he didn’t have the big sponsors he has now: Visa, Speedo, Mazda, McDonald’s, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. And, of course, he hadn’t yet discovered his mystical connection to the dolphins.
I told him I was willing to take a chance on him. If he would be spokesperson for my Mendocino Medicinal, it’d be a win-win for everybody. I’d supply him with bud, my licensed, legal-in-the-state-of-California grow-op would prosper, and the acceptance of herb nationwide would get a boost. He seemed enthused at the time.
Here’s what happened that day. We were sitting on the beach out by Gualala, and Michael’s telling me about all the pressure on him to be perfect. He was just a kid, you know, but the pressure was huge, from his coaches, from his mom, and already from the media. He swam five hours a day, every friggin’ day. Fifty miles a week. Talk about chlorine brain. He barely had a life, you know? Everybody telling him he was blessed with the perfect swimmer’s body, the biggest flipper feet and the hugest lungs. They expected so much. And he wanted it, too. But he didn’t know what it was.
So I fire up the ole bong and pass it over. He takes a drag, and I mean he drains the whole bowl, and then he holds it in for I don’t know how long. After about 30 seconds I bust out laughing, and he’s still going strong, like it was nothing, like he could hold his breath forever. Like he was Superman, or a fish or something. Which he was, I guess. Sort of. In the pool.
Anyway, he does finally exhale about five minutes later. And he’s got this little smile on his lips, and we pound a couple of PBRs and some chips. And then he stands up and rips off his jeans and his shirt and starts into the shore break. I followed the best I could, but you know, he’s Michael Phelps. And pretty soon we’re bobbing out beyond the break, laughing and looking at the sunlight sparkling off the water. And then we see fins.
At first I thought, Shark!, and my limbs made involuntary moves toward the beach. But Michael stroked straight out toward them with those pelican arms of his, and like that he was in with them, dolphins, arching their backs, diving and leaping over one another, ripping around. And then they disappear. Just like that. All of ’em, Michael too.
And I’m trippin’ over rocks working my way back in, and looking out to sea at the same time and just tongue-tied, you know. I mean, what was I going to do, call out his name? There was nobody for miles. And I’m sitting there holding my knees and thinking this didn’t just happen, when way off I see this clean wind-milling of arms. And it’s Michael, alone, just a speck at first but comin’ fast, cruising back in.
“They know,” he said when he was finally sitting beside me in the sand. “They showed me. You have to embrace the water.” And that’s when I figured I could hitch my water pipe to this kid’s wagon, as it were.
So, Michael. If you’re reading this, I’m sorry about the tabloids, man. No harm intended. I understand you had to say what you said, that it was just a youthful indiscretion and that you promise your sponsors and fans that you won’t do it ever again. You had to say that, you’re on the friggin’ corn flakes box. I know that. But I was hoping maybe we could rekindle our friendship. You know, hang out, fire one up, maybe go for a swim.
You could go in a different direction, sponsorship-wise, if you wanted to. Instead of Speedo, see, you could go with Da Kine board shorts. And instead of McDonald’s you could endorse Alfalfa’s markets or something. Instead of corn flakes, you could lend your name to a granola. See what I’m sayin’?
You could be the man, Michael, the truth-telling man. Our last three presidents admitted to smoking pot. Half the people on the planet smoke weed. They say it isn’t a performance-enhancing drug. But you know better. You and the dolphins.