Dear Michael Phelps, February 2009
You have been a complete
inspiration to me these past couple of years, and I say: thank you,
sir. You are already the greatest Olympian of the Modern era,
and you are poised to go even further. But as you get older
and more successful, you know there are even tougher challenges
ahead: your body isn't what it once was, and
there are people aggressively maneuvering for your
So how can you
win more golds? How can you stay at the top of your
game? Look at this landscape painting by Albert Bierstadt. I'm going to
show you how it can revolutionize your life and ensure many
I'll let your
coach build your body; this letter is about your soul.
two things in my early twenties that forever changed my
life: swimming and art. Swimming, because I needed
money. Art, because I wanted to see.
swimming my first year in college in order to become a
lifeguard. Swimming scared the hell out of me.
Not water. Not lakes. Not rivers. But the
physical act of properly swimming. Water up
my nose. I had no stamina. Water in my goggles.
I couldn't even keep my trunks on! Everything that could go
wrong always did. Sure, I could dog paddle and float around.
But I had no earthly idea how to swim.
By age 22, I had fallen in love with the sport so much that I was
between 12,000-20,000 yards per week. I'm talking
actual swimming: with alternate breathing, Speedos, racing
goggles, timed splits, and flip turns.
Oh, and I did
get that lifeguard certification--barely. As I sat on
that stand for hour after hour as a Tennessee lifeguard, I watched people swim...and swim...and swim,
lap after lap. I saw beautiful swimmers, and I saw ugly swimmers. I
saw it all.
more interestingly, I watched beginners take their first
strokes, and I watched them develop into swimmers over the
Some people got it; most did not.
As I talked to
those few who became proficient swimmers, I was always fascinated by the ways they changed.
People who were skinny and ungainly, were now lean, slim and
built. People who were over-weight and lethargic, were
also now lean, slim and built.
But not only
did their bodies change, their attitudes towards their
bodies changed as well. The toughest of guys
who would never dream of wearing a French-cut Speedo in
front of their buddies, were all the sudden wearing French-cut Speedos. Rednecks
who never once thought of shaving their legs...yes, were now doing
not only did swimming transform the people I was watching,
it also transformed me.
I'll never forget the first day I ever wore a Speedo.
I had just changed rotations with another lifeguard, and I
stepped into the locker room to change into my newly-bought
Speedo nicknamed "the purple thunder." When I walked
out of that room, the other lifeguards burst out laughing,
as I stood there with a kickboard as my only defense against
their pitiless perfidy.
But what is it
about swimming that I have loved for over a
decade? Why did I face eternal ridicule by my friends
and the whole of society to wear the purple thunder?
Have you ever
met a swimmer who has completely romanticized the sport? Those
athletes who stand at pool's edge, not as a simple
person who flops around in the water, but as a singular
being--a god, if you will--in complete control of every
muscle in their body and in complete control of every drop
of water around them? A Templar who holds every
practice as a holy crusade? And that only through
swimming can one truly commune with the ideal?
I'm sure you
have. I love those people. I'm one of those
people. What always fascinated me about the sport is
how it not only completely transforms one's body, but it has
the potential to transform the soul as well. Swimming
is by its nature an extremely sensual, graceful and powerful sport.
The more sensual and graceful one is in the pool, the more powerfully
one moves through the water.
And at each
step, because of the nature of our sport, the body and soul
become unified in action. It is only the soul that can
give grace to the body.
"visualization" is huge in swimming. The idea is that
one has to visualize the perfect form, i.e., one has to be
able to picture oneself moving gracefully through the water.
This is the province of the soul. Or for the more
literal out there among us--the mind.
Think of your
soul as a vase that you are continually making and
re-making. And the old saying applies: junk in, junk
out. A fantastic side benefit of swimming is that
surely and slowly it can have tremendous ramifications on
one's soul. As you shape
your body, you shape your soul.
brings us to the second great love of my life: art.
It was in 1994 that I first discovered the complete transformative
power of art on the soul. During a philosophy conference, one
speaker absolutely blew me away with how he discussed the visual
arts. He discussed a painting much like you see here.
beginning of the talk, he asked everyone in the audience to
spend one minute writing down everything that they see. Thinking I was a genius, I wrote things like "ceiling," "floor," and "light." Well...he
spent the next hour discussing the textures, colors,
organization in paintings such as this called "still-lifes."
At the end of the talk, he asked us again to write down what
All of us
sitting in the audience were hit like a brick. At the
end of his talk, we
weren't writing things down like "table" and "chair"--we
were describing what we saw in highly-evocative terms.
textures in the room, shades of colors, the direction of the
light...it is as if we were seeing them for the first time
in our lives. I know I was.
His main point
was that art can help one achieve greater clarity, meaning
and value in the perceptual realm. In essence,
art--that is objective art--can further connect us to
nature in deeply intimate and
passionate terms. Want to get fired up for trees? Then
look at beautifully painted landscapes. Want to get fired up
for your girlfriend's beauty? Then look at beautifully
started swimming because I needed money. I started
looking at art because I wanted to see.
When I first
started looking at art, my single question was: how can I make the
world of art into the world of Lee? How can I achieve the
beauty, the order, the color—and the love of them all—in my own
life? Basically, I had to have all the great things I was
seeing in art part of my daily life.
So that is
what I did. I surrounded myself with art, from floor
to ceiling. Down came the NASCAR posters and up went
portraits by Rembrandt.
Surrounding myself with beautiful images literally transformed almost all aspects of
this Tennessean's very being—for the better. Hell, after
looking at paintings like the still life above, I even
cleaned up my room and made my bed without being yelled at
for the first time in my life! You see, I wanted my
room to have the same effect on me as a fine painting.
the same time that I was learning the esthetic virtues of a
clean house, I was also dating the most beautiful French
woman in all Tennessee. (Maybe the only French woman
Well, one day
while we are at McDonalds, she was sitting across from me
under a red neon light. SLAM! I was completely struck
by her beauty, and I even said to her: "My god, you are
Here I had this stunning woman around me
everyday--and I never looked at her. I never SAW her.
But after surrounding myself with art for several months, it
is as if I was slowly emerging from a long coma. I was
actually seeing things around me that I had never seen
before: her beauty, the light at dusk as it soaks through
the bark of a tree, sunrises, sunsets--the sumptuousness of nature was now
part of my immediate world. For the first time in my
Inspired by what I learned about her in McDonald's, I
immediately took her to Burger King, because we all know the
neon lights in Burger King are far superior to McDonalds'!
What happened with my
bedroom and then-girlfriend? By looking, appreciating, loving and surrounding myself
with some of art history’s most dramatic imagery, I was transforming
myself into the person who I wanted to be. I was shaping my
soul into a vase I could be proud.
Mr. Phelps, you do
this everyday in your life. You are quoted as saying: "I like to get
in my own world. When I'm getting ready for a meet, I always have
headphones on, listening to rap music to get myself fired up."
You see how you are
USING art to make you a better person? To block out the
distractions? To bring greater clarity and focus to your life?
To get you fired up?
Michael Phelps, I am
the world's most fired-up art historian. And I was certainly
fired up for my French girlfriend! Thank you, art.
Here is the first
painting that I ever fell in love with, and it illustrates another
function of art: it is the holy grail of the
ideal. Not only can art give you a new-found love for seeing
what is around you--it can inspire, illustrate and educate.
Not long after that
philosophy conference where I was introduced to art, I said to
myself: "Sandstead, now that you know it is good, let's go get
some!" So I walked into a store called 10,000 Prints.
Surely there would be something here that I like?
Well, there wasn't! I didn't like the Monets, the Van Goghs,
the Da Vincis or anything else that I saw. It wasn't until I
reached print 9,999 that I saw this image--and it completely blew me
expression on the blonde's face hit me as if I had just found a lost
puppy. It was the sheer benevolence on her
face that stopped me in my tracks. At that particular time in my life I was
desperately seeking benevolence in other human beings--and in this work, I found it.
But there was
something more about this painting that I would later learn. In art, there is a metaphor for war that
shows children fighting over food, or toys or some other commodity.
Here Bouguereau reverses the age-old metaphor, and shows us two
beautiful children in a stunningly-beautiful relationship. For
me, great relationships are a tremendous value, and this value is an ideal that I reach for
on a daily basis. This painting shows me that ideal.
I love this
painting to this day, and I always say that if my soul looks like
this girl's face when I am ninety-years-old--then I will have a
lived an extremely successful life. That's art.
have experienced how ugly people can be in this world. So how can you
keep that fantastic benevolence that you are known for? Look
and believe in this painting. And just as you listen to music
everyday--sometimes the same song over and over--look at this
painting over and over, everyday. That is--look at your ideals
So that brings
us to this painting by Bierstadt. How can it
REVOLUTIONIZE your life? How is it going to win you
should already have a taste for the power of art...
Look back to the
First, you cannot appreciate it unless you
visit it in person.
I recently hosted a show on Travel Channel where I visited
some of our country's greatest museums. Over the
course of summer 2008, the crew and I looked at tons of
artworks in person; from large-scale pieces that dominated
rooms to tiny portraits hidden away in forgotten museum
corners. This painting by Bierstadt was the absolute favorite for a
majority of the crew--out of everything we had seen.
People who had never visited a museum before were floored
before its technical audacity
and romanticized veracity.
And from this
tiny internet image, you would never guess that this is one big, honkin'
painting. HUGE! So you have to see it in person.
it debuted in 1866, people lined up around the block to see
Mt. Rosalie. It was the blockbuster of the day,
and when he eventually sold it, this painting was the most
expensive ever sold by an American to date.
But here is
what is really cool: this landscape painting may be
the greatest declaration of love from one man to a
traveled extensively through the West making sketches of
some of America's most stirring mountain ranges, and then
later, he turned those sketches into great artworks
featuring the actual locations.
Rosalie is a complete fabrication.
While on an
expedition through the West with the writer Fitz Hugh
Ludlow, Bierstadt fell hopelessly in love with Ludlow's
wife, Rosalie. After a two-year, bitter divorce
between her and Ludlow, Bierstadt married Rosalie and
dedicated this painting to her.
That distant peak? That is Bierstadt's
statement to his wife Rosalie and to love itself.
Notice the water flowing from the peak, giving life to
everything below. That is the power of Rosalie.
stand before this painting--my heart pounds.
me, is the greatest landscape painter of all time. His
incredible technical facility, combined with his unbridled
idealism and romanticism, have the potential to fill the
viewer with awe. Mt. Rosalie demands that I
live my life like the painting--filled with drama,
adventure, beauty, excitement, and love.
I never feel
little in front of Mt. Rosalie. Only grand;
only bigger than life. Full of my ideals. It's a
feeling much like Elvis' famous quote on art: "When I
was a child, I was a dreamer. I read comic books, and
I was the hero of the comic book." Comic books filled
Elvis with grand aspirations. So, too, does Mt.
Rosalie for me.
ideals consume everyday of your training life. You and
your coach get together, define your ideals, and then
devise a plan to achieve those ideals. Let the distant
peak of Mt. Rosalie be your next Olympic gold medal.
Say to yourself: "I want that medal, and it looks just as
beautiful as Mt. Rosalie." There will be valleys and
peaks on your quest for the next gold, but the view from the
top is as life-changing as the journey.
Let this painting raise you to its level;
and cast away the inconsequential, the banal, the trivial.
Like Elvis, look at art and be the hero.
That is how
this painting can revolutionize your life, if you let it.
Mr. Phelps, I
grew up for most of my early life in a house trailer. I
never had fine things, elegant foods or high culture.
We weren't sitting around the trailer
discussing world travel or the daily life of Michelangelo,
we were debating if an open oven was a
satisfactory work around for a broken furnace, or wondering
if our pipes would freeze (again) during the winter.
It was in my
early twenties when I decided the ideals that I would pursue
for the rest of my life--and it is art that continually
serves as the guidepost towards those ideals.
for being such an inspiration to thousands of swimmers and
millions of sports enthusiasts across the world.
The point to
this whole letter is that art is crucial. You may not
like any of the artworks that I have discussed here, just
like you don't like every song out there. The point is to
realize the importance of art, what it can do for you, and
find the art that best inspires you and represents your
ideals--to make yourself into
the person you want to be.
hopefully, that is a person who wants to win nine more
golds. Mr. Phelps, go big or go home!
PS: And Mr.
Phelps...the ladies LOVE guys who dig art!