Chronicling Michael Phelps’ history as king of the Olympic rings
Michael Phelps, the most decorated athlete in Olympic history, will be participating in his his fifth Olympic Games, a United States record among male swimmers.
Up next for the 31-year-old Phelps will be three individual races — the 200-meter butterfly, 200-meter individual medley and 100-meter butterfly — and as many as three relays at the Summer Games in Rio. And considering he placed first in each discipline at the U.S. team trials in Omaha, it seems likely he’ll add to his incredible collection of 22 medals, a number that includes 18 golds.
A run like Phelps’ is almost inconceivable in a sport like swimming, where youth typically reigns supreme. But Phelps and his U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte, who turns 32 on Aug. 3, have repeatedly proven themselves to be outliers.
And should either win gold in a solo race in Brazil — Lochte will compete alongside Phelps in the 200-meter IM but did not qualify in the 400 IM — that swimmer will become the oldest to win individual Olympic gold, knocking Dutch swimmer Inge de Bruijn, who won the 50-meter freestyle three days before her 31st birthday at the 2004 Games in Athens, from the top spot.
As a result of Phelps’ prolonged dominance, there’s an entire generation of fans who can’t recall a time when he wasn’t in the pool at the Olympics. And there are others, yet, who aren’t even old enough to remember when Phelps got his start, more than half his life ago. So with that in mind, let’s look back on Phelps’ four previous Olympic appearances as he prepares for a record-setting fifth:
Phelps made his Olympic debut at the age of 15, making him the youngest U.S. male to swim in the Games since 1932.
At the time, Phelps still had braces on his bottom teeth and didn’t yet have his driver’s license, but he earned a spot in the 200-meter butterfly with a second-place finish at the Olympic trials in Indiana, pulling away from Jeff Somensatto during the final 50 meters to clinch a spot on the team.
“He doesn’t know what it means to go to the Olympics and how it’s going to change his life,” first-place finisher Tom Malchow, a 1996 silver medalist, said of Phelps after the race. “He’s going to find out soon.”
Once in Sydney, Phelps performed admirably, and any other year he’d have been worthy of a spot on the medal stand.
He won his first-round heat with a time of 1:57.30, then earned a spot in the final with a time of 1:57.00 in his semifinal heat. Phelps then cut a half-second off that time in the finals, finishing in a time of 1:56.50 that would have put him one hundredth of a second off the gold-medal pace at the 1996 Games in Atlanta and won him gold at any Olympics prior to that.
However, Phelps had to settle for fifth place, one-third of a second behind bronze medalist Justin Norris of Australia and more than a full second behind the gold medalist Malchow.
If 2000 was Phelps’ first taste of the Olympics, then in 2004, he devoured the whole buffet.
By the time the 2004 Olympic trials in Long Beach rolled around, Phelps, then 19, had set world records in four different events. At the trials, Phelps competed in six events and, unsurprisingly, qualified in all of them. But with three relays also expected to be on his plate in Athens, Phelps dropped the 200-meter backstroke, putting him in eight total races at the Olympics.
What followed was one of the greatest performances in the history of Olympic swimming — one eventually bested by Phelps’ own showing in Beijing in 2008.
In his first event, the 400-meter IM, Phelps won his first career gold medal, putting him well on his way to tying (or breaking) Mark Spitz’s then-record of seven in a single games. He qualified for the final with a time of 4:13.29 in his first-round heat, then pasted the field with a blistering gold-medal time of 4:08.26 in the final, topping his own world record for the fourth time in the process.
But Phelps was only getting started.
Phelps’ next two events — the 200-meter freestyle and 4×100-meter freestyle relay — both ended with Phelps winning bronze, the former (a race alongside Ian Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband dubbed “The Race of the Century”) coming in a time of 1:45.32 and the latter with a time of 3:14.62 that included a 48.74-second leg by Phelps.
Those disappointments ended Phelps’ hopes of passing Spitz in ‘04, but from that point on, however, it was all gold, starting with Phelps’ signature event, the 200-meter butterfly. Four years after coming up short in Sydney, Phelps set an Olympic record with a time of 1:54.04.
Then just 61 minutes later, Phelps won his first relay gold in the 4×200-meter freestyle, with Phelps posting a time of 1:46.49 in the lead leg, putting the U.S. in front when he handed the race off to Lochte. Then after Lochte and Peter Vanderkaay kept the U.S. in the lead, Klete Keller held off Australia’s Ian Thorpe on the anchor leg of the race.
From there, Phelps’ focus returned to the individual races, and in the 200-meter IM, Phelps topped Lochte, setting an Olympic record with a time of 1:57.14. Then the next day, Phelps beat another teammate, world record-holder Ian Crocker, in the 100-meter butterfly final, Phelps’ Olympic record time of 51.25 topping Crocker by four-hundredths of a second.
That gave Phelps five gold medals and two bronze for the Games, but Phelps, in a somewhat unusual move, put the fate of his sixth gold in Crocker’s hands, allowing Crocker to swim the butterfly leg in the 4×100-meter medley relay. The U.S. went on to break its own world record in the event and Phelps, by virtue of having competed in the team’s qualifying heat, received gold, as well.
It would be hard to forget Phelps’ historic 2008 effort, even if you tried. Because in addition to the 23-year-old Phelps winning eight gold medals, the most ever by an athlete in a single Olympics, he also set world records in seven of his races in the process.
Of course, after his run in Athens, there was no question Phelps was capable of what he pulled off in Beijing, but seeing him actually do it was stunning, nonetheless.
Competing in the same eight events he did in Greece, Phelps started by demolishing his own world record in the 400-meter IM, shaving more than a second and a half off his time from the Olympic trials and more than four and a half seconds off his gold medal time from 2004 with a 4:03.84 finish.
Phelps then set an American record in the lead leg of the 4×100-meter freestyle relay, and the team set a world record of 3:08.24 thanks to Jason Lezak’s anchor leg rally past Frenchman Alain Bernard. The win was redemptive for Phelps, part of the team that earned bronze in the event in 2004, and marked the only U.S. Olympic gold medal in the race since 1996.
Equally vindicating was Phelps’ win in his next race, the 200-meter freestyle. After a third-place finish in Athens, Phelps set a world record with a time of 1:42.96 in Beijing, touching the wall nearly two full seconds ahead of the silver medalist, South Korea’s Park Tae-hwan. At that point, Phelps was 3-for-3 with three world records and was the reigning gold medalist in his five remaining events.
In his next race, the 200-meter butterfly, Phelps overcame some technical difficulties — he spent most of the race swimming blind after his goggles filled with water — to set a world record at 1:52.03. That win gave him 10 gold medals overall, the most ever by a modern Olympian. Later that day he upped the count to 11 as part of the first 4×200-meter freestyle team to break the 7:00 mark.
Phelps’ sixth gold of the games then came in the 200-meter IM, as he finished more than two seconds ahead of the silver and bronze finishers with a world-record time of 1:54.23. But his seventh gold medal, in the 100-meter butterfly, didn’t come so easily.
Prior to the race, Milorad Cavic of Serbia remarked that he’d like to go down in history as “some guy” who kept Phelps from winning eight gold medals, and in the end, Cavic came as close as someone possibly could to doing it. In the one race in which Phelps didn’t set a world record (he still set an Olympic mark), Phelps finished in 50.58 seconds, one hundredth of a second ahead of Cavic.
In the aftermath, there were conspiracy theories abound regarding which swimmer deserved gold, and even today there’s still healthy debate regarding who actually touched the wall first.
In any case, Phelps moved on to the 4×100 medley — this time he actually swam in the final — and his team set yet another world record, breaking the 2004 U.S. mark by 1.34 seconds, with a time of 3:29.34. Phelps’ split in the butterfly portion of the event was 50.15 seconds and gave the Americans the lead going into the final leg.
Heading into the most recent Games, Phelps needed three medals to become the most decorated Olympian ever. He went ahead and got six anyway, including four more golds. However, his quest for the record was briefly derailed early on.
Phelps’ latest Olympics, which were previously thought to be his last, included seven races, though he qualified for the same eight as he had during the previous two Games. He eventually decided to drop the 200-meter freestyle, and in his first final, the 400-meter IM, he placed fourth, leaving him off the medal stand for the first time since his 2000 debut.
It begged the question whether Phelps had enough left in him to make history, particularly considering that he barely qualified for the final in the first place, his 4:13.33 prelim time the slowest among the eight qualifiers. In the final, Phelps clocked in at a more respectable 4:09.28, but still touched more than four seconds behind the gold medalist, Lochte.
However, in his second race, Phelps won his 17th medal, doing so with a 47.15-second split during his leg of the United States’ silver medal-winning 4×100-meter freestyle relay.
Two nights later, Phelps, once again looked a stroke slow but took silver in the 200-meter butterfly, his 1:53.01 time nearly a full second behind his world record time from 2008 (a mark he’d already broken at the 2009 world championships in Rome). Then later that evening, his relay team won gold in the 4×200-meter freestyle.
Phelps’ elusive 19th medal broke a tie with Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, who won 18 medals, including nine golds, in the 1950s and ’60s.
With the pressure, at that point, off — or at the least reduced — Phelps returned to the dominant form most had come to expect, winning gold in each of his last three races. The first, coming with a 1:54.27 time in the 200-meter IM, made Phelps the first male swimmer to win the same individual event at three consecutive Olympic Games.
Phelps then duplicated that feat in his next final, winning his third straight gold in the 100-meter butterfly with a time of 51.21 seconds. In earning his 17th career gold medal, Phelps topped South Africa’s Chad Le Clos, who beat Phelps by five hundredths of a second in the 200-meter butterfly final earlier in the Games.
Then, in what was believed to be Phelps’ final Olympic race, his 4×100-meter medley team won gold — Phelps’ 18th gold medal and 22nd overall — with a time of 3:29.35, as Phelps bid farewell to the Olympics (or so we thought) with a 50.73-second butterfly leg.
Now all that’s left to do is see what Phelps has left. It’s unclear as of yet which relay teams will include Phelps, but his first shot at an individual medal could come Aug. 9, in the 200-meter butterfly final.