A little under two years after retiring at London 2012, where he took his collection of Olympic medals to 22 (18 of them gold) and became the most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps announced that he was going back into training.
Serving notice that he still has what it takes, the American legend then swam the fastest 200m individual medley, 100m butterfly and 200m butterfly times of the year at the 2015 US National Championships. Rio 2016 will be the fifth Olympics of Phelps’ stellar career, though he is adamant they will also be his last.
Phelps began to forge his Olympic legend at the age of 15, when he finished fifth in the 200m butterfly final at Sydney 2000. Reflecting on that achievement, the ever-demanding swimmer said: “It was great, I was fifth, that’s a pretty big accomplishment. But I didn’t want it. I wanted more. I was within half a second of medaling – it was literally, if I would have taken it out a little bit faster, maybe I would have had a chance.
“There are reasons why I swam every holiday, every Christmas, every birthday,” added Phelps, explaining why he was the most dedicated of swimmers. “I was trying to be as prepared as I could, and I tried to see what I could really do and what my potential was. I just really did kind of whatever it took.”
Phelps had won five world titles by the time he opened his Olympic account at Athens 2004. Competing in eight events, he took gold in the 100m and 200m butterfly, 200m and 400m individual medley and the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle relays with his USA team-mates, as well as bronze in the 200m freestyle and the 4x100m freestyle relay.
His eight-medal haul matched the single Summer Games record set by Soviet gymnast Aleksandr Dityatin at Moscow 1980, while his tally of golds was only one fewer than the record seven won by his fellow countryman Mark Spitz in the pool at Munich 1972.
“Everyone was comparing me to Mark Spitz. But for me – I still say this a lot – it was never about beating Mark Spitz,” said Phelps. “It never was. It was about becoming the first Michael Phelps, not the second Mark Spitz. And that’s truly what I always dreamt of as a kid. I dreamt of doing something that no one had ever done before.”
A golden eight in Beijing
Another 12 titles came his way at the 20015 and 2007 FINA World Aquatics Championships in Montreal and Melbourne respectively, a sign of things to come at Beijing 2008, where he took gold in all eight events he contested, a feat unprecedented in any sport at the Games.
In topping the podium in the 100m and 200m butterfly, 200m freestyle, 200m and 400m individual medleys and the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle relays and the 4x100m medley relay, the voracious Phelps posted seven world records and an Olympic record in the 100m butterfly.
In the years that followed, the Bob Bowman prodigy became the most decorated swimmer in the history of the world championships, winning five more titles in Rome in 2009 and a further four in Shanghai two years later to take his worlds medal collection to 33, 26 of them golds.
In making his fourth Olympic appearance at London 2012, where he announced his impending retirement, Phelps became the first male swimmer to win the 100m butterfly and 200m individual medley titles at three consecutive Games. As well as landing the 4x200m freestyle relay title, he took silver in the 200m butterfly and the 4x100m freestyle relay before landing an 18th Olympic gold in the 4x100m medley.
Speaking after that final success, an emotional Phelps said: “It's tough to put into words right now, but I finished my career how I wanted to. Through the ups and downs of my career I've still been able to do everything that I've ever wanted to accomplish. I've been able to do things that no-one else has ever been able to do and this is one of the funniest ways to finish it, in a relay.”
Later looking back on his career, Phelps said: “I only saw myself as a swimmer. That’s it. Nothing else. I had no self-worth, no self-love; I was just like, ‘Yeah, I’m just a swimmer, I don’t have anything else’.”
Still the world-record holder for the 100m butterfly (49.82 seconds), 200m butterfly (1:51.51), 400m individual medley (4:03.84) and the 4x100m (3:08.24) and 4x200m freestyle (6:58.55) relays, the greatest swimmer of them all has set himself one final challenge at Rio 2016.
“I’m 30 years old and swimming almost faster than I ever have before,” he warned, letting everyone know that he is hungry to add to his record tally of Olympic titles and medals.