Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian in history.
The American swimmer ended his career after his fifth Games, in Rio in 2016, where at the age of 31 he won a further five gold medals and a silver, taking his tally to 23 Olympic titles and 28 medals! A record unlikely to be beaten any time soon.
Diagnosed with Attention Deficit disorder, Phelps was directed towards swimming in 1992 at the age of just seven in order to provide him with an outlet for his unbounded energy. After that, his transformation into an unbeatable swimmer appeared inexorable, and he broke record after record as he rose through the age categories.
The Baltimore Bullet’s first Olympic appearance came in 2000 in Sydney when he was chosen for the US swim team at the age of just 15 – the youngest American swimmer selected for a Games in almost 70 years.
He failed to win a medal in Australia but it was clear that Sydney was just a learning experience and this was to prove no setback. A year later Phelps became the youngest male swimmer to break a world record with a win in the 400m freestyle at the 2001 World Aquatics Championship – a taste of future glory.
The next two years saw Phelps amass a haul of gold and silver medals at international swim meets and break numerous world records in the 200m and 400m individual medley races. His tally at the 2003 World Aquatic Championship of four golds and two silvers, along with five world records, set the scene for a thrilling performance at the 2004 Olympic Games in Greece.
Phelps did not disappoint. In his first event, the 400-meter individual medley, hewon with a world record time of 4:08.26 to take his first Olympic gold medal.
Though he lost out to Ian Thorpe in the 200m freestyle, the so-called “Race of the Century”, the following days saw the young American scoop gold in the 200m butterfly, the 4x200 freestyle relay, the 100m butterfly and the 4x100m medley. Six gold and two bronze medals meant Phelps had achieved the second-best performance at an Olympics Games – he was second only to the legendary swimmer of 1972, Mark Spitz.
Phelps’ home town duly named a street in his honour – The Michael Phelps Way.
The Beijing masterstroke
Come Beijing in 2008, following four years in which he won 17 World Championship gold medals, Phelps broke Spitz’s long-standing record. He won his eighth Olympic gold medal in the 4x100m medley relay – setting a new world record for good measure – with a little inspiration from Australian rival Ian Thorpe, who earlier declared such an achievement impossible. Phelps took note and stuck Thorpe’s statement on his locker.
By the time London 2012 came round Phelps was, like Usain Bolt, a global star – a brand in his own right – and had even set up a foundation in his own name to promote healthy living and fitness for children. Having earlier announced his retirement, the world waited with bated breath to see if The Flying Fish could become the most decorated Olympian of all time.
Despite some shocks at the Aquatics Centre – coming fourth in the 4x100m individual medley behind rising star Ryan Lochte and finishing second to Chad Le Clos of South Africa in the 200m butterfly – Phelps duly obliged.
A gold medal in the 4x200m freestyle relay, added to his 200m butterfly silver earlier that day, meant he had now surpassed Soviet-era gymnast Larisa Latynina’s record of 18 Olympic medals.
He went on to win his fifth 200m individual medley gold – a competition record – and secure another first in what he said was his last-ever individual race, the 200m butterfly. Phelps rounded off his career in style as part of the winning USA team in the 4x100m medley relay, in front of an ecstatic crowd.
It’s not clear what the Michael Phelps way will be from this point on, but with 22 Games medals to his name, including an astonishing 18 golds, his record as the most decorated Olympian of all time seems likely to last for at least the rest of his retirement.
Retirement and a victorious comeback
Phelps then announced that he was retiring. But the competition virus never left him, driving him to start training again in April 2014, with a view to competing at the Games in Rio. He cleared the first hurdle easily, at the US trials in Omaha at the end of June 2016, where the man who was already the most successful Olympian of all time celebrated his 31st birthday by qualifying brilliantly for three individual distances and three relays.
Thus did Michael Phelps find himself back in action at the Olympic Aquatics Centre in Barra de Tijuca. On 7 August, he played a decisive role in the second leg of the 4x100m freestyle relay, which saw the USA beat France and Australia. That made 19! On 9 August, Bob Bowman’s pupil won two new victories in the space of an hour: the 200m butterfly for the third time (after 2004 and 2008), and the 4x200m freestyle relay with the USA for the fourth time. So 20! And then 21! After the relay, he received a well-deserved ovation from the audience in the Olympic venue. Emerging from the water, Phelps sat on his starting block, shattered but satisfied. Aware of having become, in the space of an hour, one of the heroes of the Rio Games.
Better and better: on 11 August, Michel Phelps equalled the record of his compatriots, discus thrower Al Oerter and long jumper Carl Lewis, the only Olympians to win four consecutive victories in the same individual discipline, by winning the 200m medley for the fourth consecutive time. That made it 22! “This all started and began with one little dream as a kid to change the sport of swimming, try to do something nobody has ever done”, he said.
The next day, he finished as joint silver medallist with his favourite rivals Chad Le Clos and Laszlo Cseh, behind the young swimmer from Singapore, Joseph Schooling, in the 100m butterfly. “Chad and I have raced each other quite a few times in the last four years, and as for Laszlo and me... I can’t even remember the first time we competed against each other”, was his reaction. “So it’s kind of special, and a great way for me to finish my last individual race.” So 27 medals!
The end came on 13 August, with a highly appropriate team victory! The US won the 4x100m medley, with Phelps making a brilliant contribution with his two lengths of butterfly. And a final total of 23 titles and 28 medals!
“Being able to close the door on this sport how I wanted to — that’s why I’m happy now”, Phelps said after winning five more Olympic gold medals and a silver, in the Carioca pool. “I was a little kid with a dream, which turned into a couple of medals. Just being able to finish this way is special because now I’m able to start the next chapter in my life.”