Michael Phelps (USA)
Honor Swimmer (2023)
FOR THE RECORD: GREATEST ATHLETE/SWIMMER IN THE HISTORY OF THE OLYMPIC GAMES; 28 total Olympic medals: 23 gold, 3 silver, 2 bronze; 2016 OLYMPIC GAMES: gold (200m butterfly, 200m I.M., 4 x 100m medley relay, 4 x 100m, 4 x 200m freestyle relay), silver (100m butterfly); 2012 OLYMPIC GAMES: gold (100m butterfly, 200m, I.M., 4 x 100m medley relay, 4 x 200m freestyle relay), silver (200m butterfly, 4 x 100m freestyle relay); 2008 OLYMPIC GAMES: gold (100m, 200m butterfly, 200m freestyle, 200m, 400m I.M., 4 x 100m medley relay, 4 x 100m, 4 x 200m freestyle relay); 2004 OLYMPIC GAMES: gold (100m, 200m butterfly, 200m, 400m I.M., 4 x 200m freestyle relay); 2013 FINA WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS: gold (100m, 200m butterfly, 4 x 200m freestyle relay, 4 x 100m medley relay), silver (200m freestyle, 200 I.M.), bronze (4 x 100m freestyle relay); 2011 FINA WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS: gold (100m, 200m butterfly, 4 x 200m freestyle relay, 4 x 100m medley relay) silver (200m freestyle, 200 I.M.), bronze (4 x 100m freestyle relay); 2009 FINA WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS: gold (100m, 200m butterfly, 4 x 100m, 4 x 200m freestyle relay, 4 x 100m medley relay), silver (200m freestyle); 2007 FINA WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS: gold (100m, 200m butterfly, 200m freestyle, 200m, 400m I.M., 4 x 100m, 4 x 200m freestyle relay); 2005 FINA WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS: gold (200m freestyle, 200m, 400m I.M., 4 x 100m, 4 x 200m freestyle relay), silver (100m butterfly); 2003 FINA WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS: gold (200m butterfly, 200m, 400m I.M.), silver (100m butterfly, 4 x 200m freestyle relay); 2001 FINA WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS: gold (200m butterfly).
More than 20 years ago, a teenager from Baltimore arrived on the swimming scene, hungry to showcase his prodigious talent. Yet, for all the potential he flashed at a young age and for all the promise recognized by coach Bob Bowman, there was still no way of predicting a career that can only be described as one-of-a-kind.
The summer of 2000 was a transformative period for the sport as USA Swimming watched a special group of teenage boys emerge as cornerstones for the future. One of them was Phelps, who as a 15-year-old qualified for the Olympic Games in Sydney in the 200-meter butterfly, in the process becoming the youngest male swimmer to qualify for Team USA in 68 years. A month later, Phelps claimed a fifth-place finish at the Games, and his journey to greatness was underway.
Within a year of making his Olympic debut, Phelps had elevated to another level, thanks to a world record in the 200 fly while still 15 years old, and by claiming the first world championship of his career in the summer of 2001. From there, additional events were added to Phelps’ program, this expansion providing the opportunity to showcase his vast skill. While additional world records were registered in the 200 fly, Phelps also defined himself as a world-record setter in the 100 butterfly, 200 individual medley and 400 individual medley.
At the 2004 Games in Athens, the birthplace of the Olympics, Phelps embraced an eight-event schedule that resulted in eight medals – six gold and two bronze. A world record in the 400 individual medley launched his efforts in Greece, which also included solo titles in the 200 IM, 100 butterfly and 200 fly. A bronze was earned in the 200 freestyle, where Phelps challenged himself on the turf of legends Ian Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband.
Over the next few years, Phelps continued to reign, enhancing his portfolio via the World Championships and Pan Pacific Championships, and by encouraging growth in the sport among young boys who envisioned themselves as the next Michael Phelps. When he walked away from the 2007 World Champs in Melbourne with seven gold medals, including four solo world records, the stage was set for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Not since the great Mark Spitz in 1972 had an athlete captured seven gold medals in a single Olympiad, and inside the Water Cube in China, Phelps was prepared to chase eight. To accomplish the feat, Phelps needed to be at his peak, and required a little good fortune. Both proved true. From August 9 through August 17, Phelps was perfect. Eight events. Eight gold medals. There were also seven world records.
In the 400 freestyle relay, Phelps’ pursuit of history was kept alive by the greatest relay leg in history, Jason Lezak’s epic anchor and rundown of France’s Alain Bernard. Meanwhile, Phelps’ instinctual decision to take an extra half-stroke at the finish of the 100 butterfly handed him an improbable comeback triumph over Serbia’s Milorad Cavic, the margin of victory as small as possible – .01. Simply, it was a special week, one forever etched in the annals of the Olympic Games and the sport of swimming.
Following Beijing, Phelps remained an ever-present force, evident in further world championships, world records and epic performances, including another comeback victory over Cavic in the 100 fly at the 2009 World Champs. Come the 2012 Olympics in London, Phelps may not have been in peak form, but he still secured six medals – four of them gold. When the torch was extinguished in the British capital, Phelps headed for retirement.
Eventually, Phelps returned to the pool, eager to end his competitive career with a flourish at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Again, Phelps collected six medals, headlined by a fourth consecutive title in the 200 individual medley and the recapturing of gold in the 200 butterfly, the event that initially sparked the Phelps phenomenon.
All told, Phelps captured 28 Olympic medals during his illustrious career, 10 more than the second-most ever. Of that total, Phelps won 23 gold medals, 14 more than the second-most in history. His career featured 33 medals from the World Championships and 21 medals from the Pan Pacific Championships, along with an incredible 39 world records.
As impressive, Phelps has served as an inspiration to the next generation of athletes to walk the deck, and his public emphasis on the importance of mental health has highlighted the need to take care of oneself and seek support when necessary.