My first memory of Michael Phelps was his swim at the 2000 Sydney games. I was 17-years-old at the time and just in the beginning of the stage of my own swimming career that could be called serious. I had heard of Phelps before Sydney, but just whispers and rumors about a teenage phenomenon in Baltimore. Watching him compete in Australia at age 15 was inspirational to a whole generation. I remember acknowledging that he had made the finals and how great an accomplishment that was. It was impossible to watch and not think about what the future held for this boy.
2004 US Swimming Olympic Trials
As the 2004 Olympic Trials approached, I eagerly anticipated Phelps’ swims, but also the 200m breaststroke, in which my good friend and college roommate (Scott Usher) was competing in. At the time, my parents were still on dial-up and so I couldn’t watch the live stream from Long Beach. The internet was just fast enough to take advantage of Omega’s live timing page. Swimmers were represented by a bar moving back and forth across the screen in their respective lane. The bar didn’t move smoothly, rather it updated every few seconds and the line would jump ahead to wherever that swimmer was in the 50-meter-long pool.
Usher had great prelim swims and he had a good lane for the final that night. He was off to a good start, but lagged a little in the middle 100m as some veterans edged closer to him, but I knew Usher’s last 50m was exceptional and so I waited and waited, staring at the bar, cursing dial-up. When the race finished there was a delay before the final splits came up and one could see how each swimmer finished. It was much different from today when you can instantly see who finished in medal positions as graphics unfold in each lane of the competitors who finished in medal positions. The graphics will even tell you whether or not those swimmers set a new Olympic record (OR) or a world record (WR).
I was still waiting. Finally, I saw the splits. Usher had the fastest last 50m of the entire field, including Brendan Hansen, who had finished first and, in the process, also set the WR (2:09.04). Usher clocked a 2:10.90, good enough for second and a spot on the Olympic team. The next fastest swimmer swam a 2:13.82. To say I did a double take is an understatement. I confirmed the results, then reconfirmed, then again. And then I screamed. I jumped. I ran out of the room. One of my best friends had just become an Olympian. I called our coach at the time, who was on deck in Long Beach, and I spoke with Usher just minutes after his race. He was ecstatic, to say the least, and I couldn’t believe what I just saw over amazingly slow dial-up.
My next realization was that Usher was going to meet Michael Phelps, train with him, and go to an Olympic games with him. That this was what I thought about second to Usher actually making the team is testament to how big of a deal Phelps had already become. He hadn’t won a thing yet on swimming’s grandest stage, but the swimming world knew he was on the cusp of a medal-winning Olympic career due to amazing appearances at world championship meets such as Worlds 2003 in Barcelona, in which he crushed the field in the 200 IM, beating Ian Thorpe, and breaking the WR. He was 18-years-old at the time.
The Run-up to Athens
Leading up to the Athens games the swimming world was abuzz. With Phelps swimming the 200m free he would encounter two giants of the swimming world, Pieter van den Hoogenband, the legendary Dutch sprinter who is the only male swimmer to final in the 100m free in four consecutive Olympics, and, of course, Ian Thorpe, the Australian phenomenon who had been a star since he was 15-years-old. The showdown was set.
However, the American media had a different focus. They were obsessed with the magical number of Phelps’ swims at the Athens games: 8. A possible eight gold medals meant Phelps had the opportunity to surpass Mark Spitz and become the most decorated Olympian (from one Olympics) of all time. Given Phelps meet lineup for Athens, which included the aforementioned 200m free, a race Phelps was insistent upon swimming, eight gold medals was out of the question for anyone who knew anything about swimming. But, since the people at NBC don’t know much about swimming, besides Rowdy Gaines, this wasn’t discussed much. Instead the focus was on Phelps tying and possibly breaking Spitz’s record. It is safe to say that NBC had genuine interest in Phelps’ promising career, but they also ran with the seven-or-eight-gold-medals story in hopes that it would pique interest in the games and in turn drive up advertising revenue and ratings. All this despite the facts that Phelps was 19 at the time and up against two veterans in the 200m free who were not yet ready to relinquish their hold on the podium.
The unrealistic expectations aside, Phelps’ performance in Athens was astonishing and a joy to watch. He won gold in four individual events. In the 100m butterfly, Phelps ran down teammate Ian Crocker in the last five meters, setting the tone for Phelps’ future 100m butterfly races. The 200m butterfly wasn’t as close. Phelps won by an arm length. In the 200m and the 400m individual medleys (IMs), it wasn’t close and Phelps broke the OR in the 200m IM and the WR in the 400m IM. He was also a member of the 4x200m free relay team and the 4x100m medley relay team, both of which took gold. In the 4x100m free relay, Phelps and his teammates finished third, which wasn’t a bad performance, but it meant eight gold medals was out of the question. This affected NBC more than Phelps.
And in what was deemed “the race of the century” by the swimming world, Phelps finished third to van den Hoogenband and Thorpe, but Phelps was pleased with the finish despite NBC’s displeasure that the poster boy of their Olympic coverage had to settle for a possible six gold medals instead of seven. After the 200m free, Phelps said, “How can I be disappointed? I swam in a field with the two fastest freestylers of all time.”
Phelps had tied another of Spitz’s lesser known records by winning four individual events at the same Olympics, last achieved by the mustachioed man in the 1972 Munich games. Phelps left his first Olympic games with six gold medals and two bronze medals. Although he may not have had his sights set on eight gold medals, Athens made it evident that for him to achieve eight golds in one games was possible, but it also hinged on a little luck and incredible performances by his relay teammates. In the media, Phelps’ performance was reported as a huge success, but also suggested by some that Athens was a bit of a letdown for Phelps. But he was 19 at the time and was certainly not at his peak yet. When the games ended, I was in awe of what he had done and already excited for Beijing, knowing that if anyone had the chance of tying and then beating Spitz’s record, it was Phelps and his one shot to do it was Beijing in 2008.
My Senior Year and Olympian Roommate
In August 2004, I arrived in Laramie for my senior year at the University of Wyoming and my last year of competitive swimming. My other roommate and I were awaiting Usher’s return to Wyoming. In what was truly the biggest stage he had competed on so far, Usher finished seventh in the 200m breaststroke in Athens. He couldn’t match the speed of his Long Beach performance, which would stand as the fourth fastest time in the world in 2004, but he was an Olympian and he had final-ed in the biggest swim meet there is. To see him again and to know the things he had experienced and the people he had met was a weird moment. I knew such an experience would surely change a person, but I wasn’t immediately aware of how it changed Usher. He brought gifts home for his two roommates. I received a few of his Olympic caps with the flag on them and ‘USHER’ displayed in bold lettering under the flag. He also gave me a vest that was worn by a German track athlete. He had traded for it. I love this vest and still wear it sometimes. But the coolest thing he brought home wasn’t for his roommates, but it was sort of for the apartment. He took it out and laid it out on the floor and carefully unfolded it. In and among the Olympic rings on this flag were the signatures of every USA swimmer from the 2004 Athens Olympics. Usher put it up on a wall in our living room. You couldn’t get better interior decorating. I pointed to Phelps’ signature in disbelief, still. So many greats had signed that flag. In one of the pictures Usher showed us, he stood with Phelps, just the two of them after a workout. Again, this was all amazing and the dominant though was that Usher was a teammate of Phelps, who you could argue was already one of the most successful Olympians of all time following the 2004 games.
The Run-up to Beijing
For the next four years Usher would travel all around the world and compete in the breaststroke events and swim on medley relays with Phelps. During this time it was widely reported that Phelps was training harder than ever and he was once again splashed across TV screens in Olympic promos and featured in every major magazine and newspaper in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic trials in Omaha, Nebraska, Usher’s backyard.
Usher too was going for another Olympic games. This time he had the home pool advantage and I was very confident in his chances. I followed the meet intently and between Phelps’ swims in six individual events, the race I paid the most attention too was the 200m breaststroke. In this event only the top two finishers make the Olympic team. Third place is the worst finish imaginable then. That’s precisely the spot Usher finished in. Later that summer he wound up swimming in that summer’s US Open, in which no one really wants to end up swimming in during Olympic years because it means you haven’t made the team. But in Usher’s case it was an opportunity to swim faster and to get a PR. He did exactly that; swimming a 2:10.67 and setting the US Open meet record in the process. I will never know the pain of finishing third at Olympic trials, but I have to think that the US Open swim was a bit of a personal redemption for Usher and a good way to go out.
I had a feeling that summer that Usher’s swimming career was coming to an end. I was disappointed I would no longer be able to see a friend in the water when I caught the next big international meet on TV. But collegiate swimming had made me aware of the commitment necessary to stay in peak performance. When all those hours and days committed to swimming fast don’t pay off in exactly the way you want them to, it is a trial to keep on training. And there comes a time when the reward is no longer the medal, but the retirement from the sport and a new freedom to move on with a life unencumbered by training six hours or more a day. Usher, I believe, had reached that point.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was Phelps, who was bigger and faster than ever before. His goals, which he would only share with his coach, Bob Bowman, were assumed to include ‘win eight gold medals in Beijing,’ but when asked about that following his swims at the 2008 Olympic trials, Phelps merely said he wants to swim as fast as possible and that he has a month left to train for Beijing. He always has let his swimming do the talking. I appreciate this about Phelps. So many times the media tried to get him to talk about Spitz’s record and what Phelps thought of his chances at breaking it and so many times Phelps refused to give them what they wanted. Yet you knew every time he was training for Beijing that was in the back of his mind. He wanted to do something no swimmer had ever done before. He wanted to be the first. One can connect the dots.
Phelps started his Beijing games with an expected win in the 400m IM and a new WR. He also called it his last 400m IM in competition. As an aside, I think anyone who swims the 400m IM wants it to be their last one. As a sprinter, I am particularly afraid of this event. It is 100m of each stroke, starting with butterfly, then backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle. A 100m butterfly is a difficult race, but to then face 300m afterward…No wonder Phelps wanted it be his last 400m IM and as we would find out four years later, it probably should have been. Nevertheless, it was a great opening for Phelps and it provided the necessary good vibes he would need to surpass Spitz, let alone tie him.
Phelps’ second performance was leading off the 4x100m free relay. Phelps’ lead off set a new American record in the 100m free. Behind to the French by a body length, anchor swimmer Jason Lezak (32-years-old at the time) did more than any other person throughout the Beijing games to keep Phelps on track. Lezak came back on Alain Bernard within the last five meters to beat the French and finish first. It was the fastest 100m split in history and the top five finishers in that race broke the old WR. Lezak’s swim was instantly legendary and its significance only grew as Phelps’ busy swim program continued. I watched it live and I was recording it as well. After watching it four or five times that night I sighed, turned the TV off, and went to bed saying amazing over and over again, and thinking it couldn’t get any closer for Phelps.
The next day’s coverage included the necessary recap of the historic 4x100m free relay. NBC played the last five meters of the race and the ensuing celebration, showing Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale (I would later meet Weber-Gale at a swim practice at UW-Milwaukee as he trained with the team a few times while in town), and Cullen Jones. But then it was back to business in the 200m freestyle, in which Phelps set another OR and WR, edging out Park Tae-Hwan of South Korea, to win his ninth gold medal.
The 200m butterfly was the next major swim. While I remember never being in doubt about who would win, the proximity of the rest of the swimmers to Phelps was unsettling. He should have been further ahead. When he finished the race, he quickly tore off his goggles, a sure sign that something had gone wrong with them. By the 100m mark, his goggles had filled up with water, but he still managed the win. With this gold, Phelps reached ten Olympic gold medals in his career, something no one had done in this modern Olympic era. Among other firsts achieved in this race, Phelps became the first swimmer to successfully defend an Olympic butterfly title and the first to win three individual Olympic gold medals in butterfly.
Later the same night, Phelps won another gold in leading off the 4x200m free relay.
Phelps’ 100m butterfly final was next. Once again using what one of his opponents said about him as fuel, Phelps touched the wall first. This time it was the Serbian-American swimmer, Milorad Cavic, who had said about Phelps, “It’d be good for him if he loses.” If Phelps wins seven golds and loses “the eigth to ‘some guy,’ I’d like to be that guy.” Cavic led the entire race until the wall, where Cavic glided to the touchpad with his head up, slowing his forward movement. Phelps’ finish was no better, but instead of gliding to the wall he took one gimpy stroke and rammed his hands into the wall. It was an impossible finish mostly because it was such a trick on the eye. There are a lot of swim races that are determined by .01, but for it to happen this way at this point was incredible. I just remember shaking my head, thinking Phelps had God on his side or something. After this race, I knew he was going to get his eighth gold of the Beijing games. It was clear that this was his destiny.
Serbia did file a protest and timing officials reviewed the photographs of the finish. In what is the most famous and recognizable photo among swimming fans, one can see Phelps’ fingers bent back due to touching the pad, but Cavic’s fingers are still stretched out, a millimeter or less from the pad. It is believed, by some, that the real difference between the two swimmers was a few thousandths of a second. An Omega official even publicly stated that it’s possible that Cavic was the first to touch the pad, but because the pad naturally requires a certain amount of pressure to stop the time, it registered Phelps as first because he was the first to apply the appropriate amount of pressure. This may or may not be the case, but I think the photos of the finish clearly show Phelps was victorious.
Phelps’ reaction to the 100m butterfly win will always be with me. He raised an arm showing a number one with his hand and then he slapped the water with both hands letting out this primal yell, which was the epitome of pure emotion, an explosion of it, and it was the moment I feel that Phelps knew he was going to go get eight gold medals in Beijing.
Not that Phelps’ last Beijing swim was boring, it just couldn’t have lived up to the 4x100m free relay or the 100m fly. However, in Phelps’ leg (the butterfly) he set the record split at 50.1 seconds, moving from third to first as Lezak once again went into the water to anchor the US team and win gold. Afterward, Phelps remained humble and it seemed like all he wanted to do was get away and be with this family. He did exactly that, parting the sea of photographers in order to hug his mom and sisters. They were all smiling and crying. I was too. I had never felt so proud of and happy for an athlete and a sport.
The Run-up to London
After the Olympics, Phelps was all over the place, including a Sports Illustrated cover similar to Spitz’s famous SI cover, just that Phelps had eight golds hanging around his neck. It was epic and a must-buy magazine for me.
The first major news story about Phelps in the post-Beijing era was that he took a hit from a bong. It was no big deal and no different than if Phelps had gone out and had ten beers. No one would have made a story about that even though it is the same kind of behavior. The man just proved to the world he is the greatest Olympian of all time. Taking a hit off a bong isn’t going to change that for anyone with a true and deep appreciation for what Phelps had done. Apparently, Kellogg is not in this category, as they promptly dropped sponsorship of Phelps.
During the interregnum, so to speak, Phelps kept earning medals at major international swimming competitions. Only a few of them were of a different color because Ryan Lochte started winning the 200m IM and the 400m IM, traditionally Phelps’ territory. Thus began the media’s obsession with Lochte and their push to make him the poster boy of the London 2012 games.
After watching the 400m IM in the opening night of swimming at London I was a little concerned. I feel like Phelps should have stayed away from the event like he said he would. He wasn’t training specifically for it and it is the toughest one you can swim. But I was hopeful he would turn things around. It is a long week of swimming and Phelps’ best events were ahead of him. The worst part about Phelps finishing fourth and Lochte first were the headlines. ESPN’s “The torch has been passed,” was one of the worst offenders. I am sorry ESPN, what do you know about athletes who compete in Olympic sports? Oh, that’s right, nothing. ESPN and other media outlets jumped the gun on that one.
A silver in the 4x100m free relay wasn’t that bad at all and it put Phelps in a position to become the most decorated Olympian of all time on the next day of competition. On that day he finished second in the 200m butterfly and first in the 4x200m free relay. Phelps absolutely should have won the 200m fly, but he fell victim to the same poor finish of Cavic’s from four years earlier. But he seemed to brush that off with his first gold in London and I knew Phelps was going to go out strong. He wouldn’t be finishing his career with a flurry of silver and bronze medals. No sir.
Two days later, he beat Lochte in the 200m IM. Lochte had a busy night with this final and before it the final of the 200m backstroke. Lochte, if he were the new king of swimming, would have had to win at least one of these races. He didn’t. And on top of that, he lost one to Phelps, the supposed second best swimmer in the world. With the 200m IM victory, Phelps became the first swimmer ever to win the same event at three consecutive Olympics. Another first. The next night in the 100m fly, he did it again. He is the only swimmer to win the same two events in three consecutive Olympics. Another first.
In Phelps’ last swim ever, he owned the 100m fly leg of the 4x100m medley relay, bringing the medal tally to 22, 18 of them gold. For the first time I saw Phelps on the edge of bursting into tears and it came at the end of the post-race interview with NBC’s Andrea Kremer. As he turned away you could see him trying so hard to keep the emotion in. It was a rare expression from Phelps as he walked away from an Olympic pool for the last time, a pool he was king of, for as long as he called it home.
The Post-Phelps Era
The state of US swimming couldn’t be better after losing the greatest swimmer of all time to retirement. Lochte wants to swim in Rio. Missy Franklin is a 17-year-old superstar who is so versatile and young that she could become the most decorated female Olympian of all time. Two Olympics from now, Franklin will still only be 25-years-old. And then there is Katie Ledecky, a 15-year-old…a 15-year-old, who crushed the field in the women’s 800m freestyle.
Phelps inspired all three of these swimmers and he will inspire countless more. He could say he is a living legend. He could say he is the greatest athlete and Olympian of all time. And he would be justified in doing so. But, like always, he will let his swimming do the talking.