Article written by Evan Masters
That’s what Tom Malchow, a teammate of Michael Phelps, said after Phelps’ fifth-place finish in his only event at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Sixteen years ago, a fifteen year old boy named Michael Phelps entered the Olympic spotlight, destined for greatness. Fast forward to August 2016, and Michael Phelps not only fulfilled his destiny, but he left a legacy that may never be matched.
It was only year after the Sydney Olympics, at the 2001 World Championships where Phelps made his first major splash (yeah, enjoy that awful pun). At only sixteen years old Phelps won the 200 meter butterfly, breaking the world record in the process. He followed this up with winning a combined seven gold medals in the 2002 Pan Pacific games and the 2003 World Championships. A nineteen year old Phelps then walked into Athens for the 2004 Olympic Games and walked out with his six gold medals. Easy money, no problem for the kid from Baltimore. He would go on to win 18 more Olympic gold medals in Beijing, London and Rio. His eight gold medals in Beijing is an Olympic record for most gold medals in a single Olympics. Phelps’ finest feat has to be winning the gold medal in the 200m butterfly and 200m individual medley in four consecutive Olympics- the only events that had gold had been won by the same person four Olympics in a row were Carl Lewis in the Long Jump and Al Oerter in the discus throw. Phelps is the first, and may ever be the only (though we will wait for Katie Ledecky) swimmer to accomplish this feat. Swimming isn’t an easy sport to stay dominant in as the average age of the U.S swimming team in the Olympics has been in the between 20 and 25, meaning most swimmers only last two to three Games before hanging up the goggles. Or in the case of Ryan Lochte, some awful hair and a reputation. Phelps has shown his resiliency by being able to be swim in five Olympic games and dominate in four of them, including a stretch in Rio just a couple of weeks ago where he had two races in 45 minutes and was able to win gold in the 200m individual medley and qualify for the final of the 100m butterfly. It’s not an old man’s game, either, making his feats even more impressive.
Now age 31, Michael Phelps has said numerous times during the Rio games that this would be his last Olympics. One thing that he has done over the last decade and a half is influence the next generation of swimmers. One of the best examples has to be the next big thing in American swimming Katie Ledecky. In the 800m freestyle final Ledecky not only won gold, but she demolished the rest of the field winning by eleven seconds and breaking the world record by two full body lengths. Ledecky has always said Phelps was an inspiration to her saying “I started watching him when I was 6 years old when I was first starting to get in the sport and to be on the team with him has been such an honor.” Another swimmer who has been inspired by the most decorated Olympian in history is Joseph Schooling from Singapore, who happened to be the only swimmer to beat Phelps in an individual final in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Schooling, who beat out Phelps in the 100m butterfly, made it a priority to meet him at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Schooling was a mere 13 years when he first met the American, but eight years later he beat Phelps in one of his bread and butter events. After his victory he said “A lot of this is because of Michael. He’s the reason I wanted to be a better swimmer”. Clearly, the dominance of Michael Phelps not only made his legacy greater but it inspired a new generation of swimmers that want to beat him like Schooling did.
Looking back on all of his achievements and how he has influenced the next generation of swimmers, Michael Phelps is certainly the best swimmer of all time. He is most definitely the greatest Olympian all time with his 23 gold medals being 14 more than any other Olympian, but it is also time to recognize Michael Phelps as one of the greatest athletes of all time. Someone call this man the GOAT! He has more than earned the right to be in the discussion along with other greats like Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, and Wayne Gretzky. In the end, Michael Phelps’ legacy could eclipse all of those men if he decides to go against his own word and surprise us all by being a part of Team USA for the 2020 Tokyo games. Don’t rule it out. But even if he doesn’t compete, the influence that he has had on American swimming and athletes will surely be there in his place.