A letter to Michael Phelps about swimming and art.



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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 failure.

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 more victories. 

I'll let your coach build your body; this letter is about your soul.

I discovered 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.

I started 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 swimming 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. 

But more interestingly, I watched beginners take their first strokes, and I watched them develop into swimmers over the years.  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 full-body shaves.

And 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. 

The concept "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.

And this 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. 

At the 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 we saw.

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.  The 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 painted women.

Remember, I 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.

At 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 in Tennessee...) 

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 beautiful!" 

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 life.

So!  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 away. 

The 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.

You personally 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 everyday.

So that brings us to this painting by Bierstadt.  How can it REVOLUTIONIZE your life?  How is it going to win you more golds? 

Well...you should already have a taste for the power of art...

Look back to the painting. 

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.

When 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 woman!

Bierstadt 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. 

But Mt. 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.

Whenever I stand before this painting--my heart pounds.

Bierstadt, to 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.

Mr. Phelps, 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. 

Thank you 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.   

And, hopefully, that is a person who wants to win nine more golds.  Mr. Phelps, go big or go home!


Lee Sandstead, Art Historian

PS: And Mr. Phelps...the ladies LOVE guys who dig art!