Published August 03, 2012
Michael Phelps has become the greatest Olympian ever with a series of memorable races over four Olympics. Here are his seven most important.
Michael Phelps' time at the 2012 Olympics — and, theoretically, in Olympic competition, given his repeated desire to retire after these Games — is almost done, with just the 100m butterfly and the 4x100m medley relay on the way. He could finish with 22 medals, and 18 golds, or as many gold medals as any other Olympian has medals. It's no wonder people flocked to call him "The Greatest Olympian" on Tuesday, after he snagged his 18th and 19th medals.
But it's not just Phelps' prolific medal production that has made him the most celebrated Olympian of the modern era. The era has helped, as the American sports media machine has whirred ever faster during Phelps' career, and the rush to say something new or different has gotten Phelps lavished with context-free praise for doing the unprecedented.
It's hard to argue against Phelps' eight gold medals at Beijing being the greatest feat of a single Olympiad because everyone saw it, but ESPN certainly didn't exist in 1936 for Jesse Owens' staggering domination of the track, and there were no blogs when Carl Lewis ruled it in 1984. Larisa Latynina, the Soviet gymnast whose overall medal record Phelps eclipsed, will still hold the individual medal record with 14 after these Olympics, as Phelps cannot get to more than 13 individual medals in London.
Phelps has numbers, yes, but more than anything else, Phelps has moments. There was an arc for him, a hero's journey from upstart in the pool to emperor of the water. These are the six races that factored most heavily in it.
The scrawny, lanky Michael Phelps of 2000 bears little resemblance to the 2012 edition, the one that acknowledges President Obama, Lil Wayne, and Young Jeezy in the same acceptance of congratulations. But it's this little kid Phelps who finished fifth in an Olympic final a bit over two months after turning 15, flashing some of the talent that he would deliver on less than a year later by becoming the youngest man to ever break a swimming world record in the same event. Note the jarring commentary on the race: Phelps isn't the only guy the announcers deem worth talking about in it!
Phelps came to Athens at 19, with an ambitious program that netted him eight medals, six gold and two bronze. He won the 100m butterfly by .04 seconds over countryman Ian Crocker, helped the Americans upset Australia in the 4x200m relay, and took bronzes in the 4x100 relay and 200m freestyle, setting up redemption stories that would pay off in Beijing. He wasn't dominant in Athens, not like he would be in Beijing, winning three of his four individual golds by a smaller margin of victory than the one that accompanied his first — but that's partly because he won that gold, in the 2004 400m IM, by 3.55 seconds.
The outcome of this race is no longer in doubt by about 75 meters in, when Phelps is ahead by a body length, and it just gets more lopsided after that. Phelps would go on to set a world record in 4:08.26, a time that would stand for a little less than three years until Phelps smashed it at the 2007 World Championships. Of course, Phelps has also held the record since 2002, the longest tenure in history, and lowered it seven times since.
(Did you remember that the swimming events in Athens were held in an outdoor pool? I sure didn't.)
Phelps didn't really win the 4x100m relay in Beijing as much as he participated in it, and gave the U.S. a shot at victory. He set a North American record in the 100m freestyle in his his first 100 meters, but Australia's Eamon Sullivan set a world record about two tenths of a second before he did.
Then Garrett Weber-Gale swam faster than Phelps, albeit with a head start.
And then Jason Lezak chased down France's Alain Bernard on the second leg of the final lap, swimming 100 meters in 46.06 seconds. Lezak, not Phelps, went faster than any human ever had, and maybe faster than any human will for some years to come.
In a more just world, this is remembered chiefly as Lezak's moment, because he did something phenomenal in one of the most extraordinary races in swimming history (five teams beat the existing world record in the final, which the U.S. had just set in qualifying); in ours, because Phelps reacted as he did and kind of looks like Gerard Butler, it's remembered for Lezak saving the ass of the greatest swimmer ever, and also for being one of Phelps' eight golds.
I hope Phelps still buys Lezak beer every so often.
Phelps' loss in the 2004 200m freestyle, touted by many as a "Race of the Century" between him, Australian rock star Ian "The Thorpedo" Thorpe, and Dutch freestyler Pieter van den Hoogenband, wasn't surprising or disappointing, and he admitted as much:
"How can I be disappointed?" Phelps said. "I swam in a field with the two fastest 200 freestylers of all time and I was right there with them. I'm extremely happy with that. It was fun. I had fun doing it."
Phelps had some fun in 2008, too — and he also blew everyone else out of the pool. Phelps came in as the world record-holder in the event, and had neither Thorpe nor Van den Hoogenband to contend with, so he was the favorite, but his 1:42.96 in the final beat Park Tae-hwan by almost two seconds, lowered Thorpe's Olympic record by a little less than that, topped his own world record by nearly a second, and established the largest margin of victory in the 200m Olympic final in the fastest pool in Olympic history.
To put that last bit in perspective: Phelps, swimming one of the most arduous programs ever, beat the field in 2008 by more than French freestyle specialist Yannick Agnel beat the field by in a slower pool in London.
Phelps entered the 2008 100m butterfly final in a strange situation: he was on an historic hot streak, but Milorad Cavic of Serbia was the Olympic record-holder in the event, having just set the mark in a semifinal. Cavic having the lead for most of the race, though, came as a bit of a shock, as did Phelps being out of podium placement after 50 meters. Those twin surprises just set up Phelps' greatest one, though.
Phelps, so used to overpowering elite swimmers with staggering talent honed by drive, added a little bit of mental brilliance at the end of the race to pip Cavic, chopping his stroke and edging him by a fingertip. The call on this video is great — it sure sounds like the BBC broadcast, and the announcer goes from "OHHH, nooo ... HE'S GOT IT! OH, HE'S GOT IT!" in about a second.
And, sure, he got lucky that Cavic didn't do the same thing. But no one engraves Olympic medals with "Lucky."
Phelps didn't need a heck of a lot of help in the 4x200 relay in 2012. Ryan Lochte, Conor Dwyer, and Ricky Berens led off and gave Phelps a lead of more than three seconds for his anchor leg. Phelps didn't lose it.
There's obviously not a great video that's slipped by NBC et al. for this one just yet, but this Chinese video has announcers just as excited for Phelps as they are for Sun Yang, who wins bronze in the event. Phelps, at this point, is almost more abstract concept than person, and nothing he can do, even in defeat, is all that surprising.
It's just expected that he'll do things like break a record by holding off the current fastest freestyler in the world — Agnel ripped off an insane 1:43.24 on his anchor leg, and made up less than a second on Phelps.
Likewise, it wasn't all that surprising when Phelps failed to capitalize on his first two chances to become the first man to win an individual event in three straight Olympics. Lochte whipped everyone in the 400 IM, beating the field by more than Phelps beat it in Athens, and Phelps ended up fourth, off the podium after one of his Olympic finals for the first time since 2000; South Africa's Chad le Clos got karmic revenge for Cavic in the 200m butterfly, chopping his stroke to edge Phelps. But Phelps had four total chances to pull off the triple, and so it seemed inevitable when he cashed in on his third in dominant fashion.
Phelps led after every leg of the race on Thursday, beating Lochte in each of the first three strokes, losing .15 seconds on the freestyle, and defeating his closest rival by more than half a second. London was supposed to be Lochte's coronation; instead, it's been Phelps' victory lap.
I'd apologize for the video quality here, but it crystallizes what Phelps is now: the sort of phenomenon that compels people to film their television screens and upload terrible video to the Internet.
If you're reading this, you have lived through The Michael Phelps Era, and been witness to the greatest swimmer of all time and maybe the greatest Olympian ever. Phelps is the sort of person who can say something like this...
"The biggest thing I've always said is -- anything is possible," Michael Phelps said late Tuesday night. "I've put my mind on doing something nobody has ever done before and there is nothing that was going to stand in my way -- of being the first Michael Phelps."
...and not only get away with it, but have everyone sort of agree.