He’s the greatest racer who ever walked the planet.
Mark Spitz, on Michael Phelps winning his 7th gold medal, 16 August 2008
I grew up during a time when no Olympic athlete had ever won more than nine gold medals during his or her career. Yes, I had heard about a famous jumper called Ray Ewry who could jump 3,47m long and 1,67m high from a standing position. He had won ten golds, but only if you take into account the intercalated Games of 1906, which is usually not done, at least officially. Larissa Latynina, Mark Spitz, Carl Lewis and Paavo Nurmi had all won nine gold medals, but never a tenth. And then came Michael Phelps…
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Phelps took centerstage at the age of 19, when he came to Athens with the clear purpose of winning eight titles, thereby shattering the record set by Mark Spitz, 32 years earlier. Eventually he won ‘only’ 6 events (plus 2 bronze medals), but back then the swimming world already knew there was more to come.
Four years later in Beijing, Phelps became one of the biggest stars of the Games and one of the most familiar faces. While Usain Bolt dominated the headlines in the second week, Phelps reigned over week one. 8 gold medals, 7 of them with a new world record.
Then the Olympic family travelled on to London and again Phelps had no problem at all with the huge expectations that accompanied him whereever he went, winning an additional 4 gold and 2 silver medals.
The London Games were supposed to be a grand finale to his career with a total record haul of medals that would not very soon be equalled. Michael Phelps’ retirement announcement didn’t come as a big surprise. He had achieved everything, more than any athlete in any sport before him. What more was there to come?
But his retirement proved to be an uneasy one. Phelps struggled to find a place in life outside the pool and outside the spotlight. In 2014 he announced his comeback, but had a hard time to get back on track. He was arrested in September 2014, for the second time already, for drunk driving and speeding and subsequently suspended by USA Swimming for six months and excluded from the World Championships 2015.
Eventually though, he found his old strength again competing in the US Nationals in 2015 and the US Trials in 2016, where he won three individual events and qualified for his fifth Olympic Games. And finally, life outside the pool took a turn for the better as well. His son Boomer was born in May 2016.
Right now it doesn’t look like Phelps had ever retired. And even better than that: we may now witness the best Michael Phelps ever. Winning the 200m butterfly and both freestyle relays, he has now won 21 Olympic gold medals, two silver and two bronze. A record that will probably not be broken in our lifetime.
And there are still two more races to come for Michael Phelps. A living legend. And whereever his road may lead him after these Games, it’s been an enormous pleasure to witness this famous career, this most outstanding swimmer of all times.