120 years, 120 stories (Part 54) : Michael Phelps, the most successful Olympian ever


If there has to be a human equivalent of the Blue Whale on earth, then that should certainly be no other than the great American swimmer, Michael Phelps. And in this edition of our Olympic Diaries, we celebrate some of the greatest moments from this quadrennial event this time with more than just one success story of the Baltimore Bullet.

Michael Phelps – born in 1985 at Maryland – is certainly one of the most illustrated athletes of all time with his career boasting of some of the mind-blowing statistics that anyone could hardly dream of. With 23 Olympic golds in his 28-medal haul from the Games, Phelps is the only participant to have topped the individual medal winning charts for four consecutive Olympics as he bade farewell after another such a spectacular show at Rio de Janeiro just a month and half ago.

The Flying Fish’s Olympic debut came at the turn of the century in Sydney when he was aged just 15 – thus becoming the youngest Olympian for his nation post the Second World War. Phelps successfully qualified for the finals in the 200 m butterfly and came fifth in the summit race.

Four years later, the major talking point at the historic Athens was of the American’s pre-tournament build-up talks about either emulating or overhauling Mark Spitz’s seven gold winning feat from Munich three decades back. Though many contemporaries like Ian Thorpe dismissed the target citing it to be beyond the reach of humans, the American teenager – who have self-confessed that such taunts set him up even more for the quest – went on to win six events besides coming third in the other two. Though his bronze-medal finish at the Race of the Century behind Thorpe and Hoogenband (Phelps abandoned the backstroke for this 200 m freestyle even though he only qualified for the former at the National Trials) ended his quest of emulating Spitz, Phelps later went on to come unvanquished in 100 and 200 m butterfly, 200 m medley to equal four individual golds that the Jewish-American achieved at Munich. Some observers even rues misfiring from the ill Ian Crocker costed Phelps his second gold in the form of his eventual bronze in the 100 m freestyle relay.

In Beijing 2008, the world witnessed the most defining Olympic moments of the man (as well as any other human) with invisible fins. In the first few days, the American won the first six events of his schedule – all with new world record timings.

In one of those events, Phelps could hardly see anything while he swam the final 100 m as water poured into his goggles. However, the athlete was favoured by his abnormally long arms to script a dramatic win over Milorad Čavić in the 100 m butterfly where onlookers stated that the Serbian was in lead for 99.9 m of the race which Phelps won by an unbelievable margin of one-hundredth of a second as measured by an Omega clock. Since Omega sponsored Phelps at that time coupled with the hair-splitting finish, the Serbian team lodged a complaint but eventually, the FINA panel upheld the American’s victory. Later, the water-wonder snapped the unprecedented eighth as the US Team – which was at third when Phelps dived for the penultimate leg – received the best-ever split to cruise through with another world record timing for the event.

Phelps ended the Beijing expedition with 8 golds – a number considered as lucky by the Chinese as they started the proceedings at 08/08/2008 on calendar and 08:08:08 on clock.

With 14 career Olympic titles, the American stood then with most gold – but however were a couple behind the former Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina on overall medal’s count. This perhaps was his biggest motivation for the London Olympics in 2012 which was Phelps’ fourth appearance – the most by an American swimmer. The king of pools started with a dismal fourth-place finish in 400 m individual medley. However, he came quickly into his elements – winning two golds each in individual and team events. Earlier, his finish behind Chad le Clos for a silver in 200 m butterfly made Phelps equal Latynina’s 18-career Olympic medals. By the time curtains fell at London, the American juggernaut decided to retire with 18 golds (22 medals) from the showpiece event.

However, the now 31-year old, seven times World Swimmer of the Year changed his mind two years hence and returned to the pools in a quest which perhaps is just to glorify his majestic legacy. With no monkey on his back, the record-machine went to Rio and once again made a statement on the aquatics – that perhaps was even better than what a four year younger achieved in London. In the solo races, Phelps avenged his defeat to le Clos in the 200 m butterfly and won the medley for the fourth time in his Olympic career – the latter being his 13th individual gold that legends point to breaking a two-millennium old record from the ancient games in Greece that goes in the name of Leonidas of Rhodes. Apart from that, the flag-bearer of US contingent won three team events but was handed a defeat by his young admirer Joseph Schooling of Singapore in the thrilling 100 m butterfly – where Phelps shared the silver with Chad le Clos and László Cseh for his last individual event.

The greatest Olympian of the modern era bowed out with his fourth consecutive top hauls by a single athlete – with a career boasting 23 golds and a total 28 medals. With this medal count statistically very much at par with Connor’s 109 titles, Pele’s 1281 goals or Tendulkar’s 100 centuries – Michael Phelps and his legacy may well survive the end of times.

Photo by Vironevaeh