Michael Phelps’ incredible 28 medals that crowned him the Most Decorated Olympian | Sunday Observer

Michael Phelps’ incredible 28 medals that crowned him the Most Decorated Olympian

1 August, 2021
Michael Phelps and his wife Nicole Phelps
Michael Phelps and his wife Nicole Phelps

Michael Fred Phelps II is the most decorated Olympian and arguably the greatest Olympian of all time by sheer number of Olympic medals he won in swimming. His epic haul of incredible 28 podium finishes spanning 2004 to 2016 Olympic Games is unparalleled, and no other Olympian comes close to his 23 gold, 3 silver and 2 bronze Olympic medals. The author was privileged to eyewitness the legendary swimmer in action at Athens 2004 and London 2012 Olympic Games.

At 6-foot-4, Phelps’ large frame, broad shoulders and big hands and feet, which act like fins, make his physique perfect for his chosen sport. His rare feats as an Olympian easily blow away those of all other Olympians. He is a 5-time Olympian and holds all-time records for total Olympic gold medals (23),total Olympic medals (28), total Olympic gold medals in individual events (13) and total Olympic medals in individual events (16).

At Athens 2004, Phelps tied the record of eight medals of any color at a single Games by winning six gold and two bronze medals. At Beijing 2008, he won eight gold medals, to surpass fellow American swimmer Mark Spitz’s 1972 record of seven first-place finishes at any single Olympics. At London 2012, Phelps won four gold and two silver, and at Rio 2016, he won five gold and one silver Olympic medals. This made him the most successful athlete at four Olympics in a row.

Birth and Growth

Phelps, born on June 30, 1985 in Baltimore, Maryland, was brought up in the Rodgers Forge neighborhood of nearby Towson. He attended Rodgers Forge Elementary, Dumbarton Middle School, and Towson High School. His mother, Deborah Sue Phelps, is a middle school Principal. His father, Michael Fred Phelps, is a retired Maryland State Trooper.

23rd Olympic Gold at Rio 2016

Phelps is of English, German, Irish, Scottish and Welsh descent. Phelps began swimming at the age of seven, partly because of the influence of his sisters and partly to provide him with an outlet for his energy. His parents divorced in 1994 when he was nine. Phelps was raised by his mother alongside his two elder sisters. Phelps later revealed that the divorce had a severe negative impact on him and his siblings. He graduated from Towson High School in 2003.

After retirement in 2016, he stated “The only reason I ever got in the water was my mom wanted me to just learn how to swim. My sisters and myself fell in love with the sport, and we decided to swim.” When Phelps was in the sixth grade, he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

At 10, he held a national record for his age group in 100m butterfly. Phelps trained under Bob Bowman since he was 11. Phelps has said Bowman reminded him of a drill sergeant because of his disciplined and regimented ways. However, Phelps has said, “Training with Bob is the smartest thing I’ve ever done. I’m not going to swim for anyone else.”

After Athens 2004 Olympics, Bowman and Phelps moved to the University of Michigan where Phelps served as a volunteer assistant coach. After 2008 Olympics, Bowman returned to Baltimore as CEO at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club with Phelps. When Bowman joined Arizona State University in 2015, Phelps moved to Arizona to continue training under Bowman.

Phelps’ rapid improvement culminated when he qualified for Sydney 2000 at the age of 15, becoming the youngest male (since Ralph Flanagan in 1932) to make a US Olympic swim team in 68 years. He made the finals of 200m butterfly and finished fifth.

Athens 2004 Summer Olympics

Phelps won his first Olympic gold in 400m individual medley with a world record of 4:08.26. Then, Phelps finished third in 4x100m freestyle and 200m freestyle. In his fourth event, 200m butterfly, Phelps won his second gold with an Olympic record at 1:54.04 and followed up with his third gold in 4x200m freestyle at 7:07.33.

In 200m individual medley, Phelps won his fourth gold clocking 1:57.14, an Olympic record. In 100m butterfly, Phelps defeated Ian Crocker, the world record holder with a time of 51.25, winning his fifth gold. Traditionally, the American who places highest in an individual event is automatically given the corresponding leg in 4x100m medley relay final.

However, Phelps’s gave teammate Crocker a chance to get his final shot at a gold. Nevertheless, Phelps was also awarded a gold for his participation in earlier rounds of medley relay. In winning six gold and two bronze medals, Phelps, still a teenager, had the second-best performance ever at a single Olympics, behind Mark Spitz’s seven gold medals.

Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics

Phelps set a world record and won his first gold in 400m individual medley. Phelps swam the first leg of 4x100m freestyle relay in a time of 47.51, and won his second gold setting his second world record of the Olympics at 3:08.24. Le Nouvel Observateur noted, Phelps sportsmanship was “proof that the person who swims in the wake of Mark Spitz is also a great gentleman.”

For his third race, Phelps broke his previous world record in 200m freestyle and won his third gold with his third world record at 1:42.96. In this race, Phelps became the fifth Olympic athlete in the modern history to win nine gold medals, joining Mark Spitz in swimming, Larisa Latynina in gymnastics, Paavo Nurmi and Carl Lewis in athletics.

In 200m butterfly, Phelps made it four gold medals and four world records with 1:52.03 despite his goggles’ having filled up with water and being unable to see anything during last 100m. This fourth gold was his tenth, and made him the all-time leader for most Olympic gold medals won by an individual. Moreover, Phelps became the first swimmer, male or female, to win three Olympic butterfly titles, after his two titles in Athens 2004 and the first to successfully defend an Olympic butterfly title.

Then, Phelps swam the lead-off leg of 4x200m freestyle relay and won his fifth gold and set his fifth world record at 6:58.56. Phelps won his sixth gold winning 200m individual medley with a world record time of 1:54.23.

All-time Record of 8 Olympic Gold Medals

First Olympic Gold at Athens 2004

On August 16, 2008, Phelps won his seventh gold in 100m butterfly, setting an Olympic record at 50.58 and edging out his nearest competitor by one hundredth (0.01) of a second. Unlike all six of his previous events at 2008 Games, Phelps did not set a new world record. Phelps’s tight finish ahead of Milorad Cavic prompted Serbia to protest and the FINA officially confirmed Phelps’s victory.

Phelps’s seventh gold tied Mark Spitz’s record. It was also his fifth individual gold in Beijing, tying the record for individual gold medals at a single Games originally set by Eric Heiden in the 1980 Winter Olympics and equaled by Vitaly Scherbo at the 1992 Summer Games. Phelps said, “Dream as big as you can dream, and anything is possible ... I am sort of in a dream world. Sometimes, I have to pinch myself to make sure it is real.”

On August 17, 2008, Phelps won his eighth gold in 4x100m medley relay, setting a new world record of 3:29.34. Thus, he broke Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals won in a single Olympic Games. Phelps said, “Records are always made to be broken no matter what they are ... Anybody can do anything that they set their mind to.”

London 2012 Summer Olympics

In his first final, Phelps placed fourth in 400m individual medley. It was the first time Phelps failed to medal in an Olympic event since 2000. In his second event, he got a silver in 4x100m free relay. On July 31, 2012, Phelps won a silver in 200m butterfly and gold in 4x200m freestyle relay, thereby surpassing Larisa Latynina who won 18 Olympic medals to become the all-time record holder for most Olympic medals won. Latynina was present at the pool and called Phelps deserves the record.

On August 2, 2012, Phelps won his 16th overall gold in 200m individual medley with 1:54.27, and by that victory also became the first male swimmer to win the same event in three consecutive Olympics. Rebecca Soni and Phelps (twice) are the only swimmers to successfully defend an individual title from the 2008 Games. This win also marked Phelps’s fifth Olympic title in the individual medley, breaking the record of four shared by Hungarian Tamas Darnyi and Ukrainian Yana Klochkova.

Phelps repeated the achievement of winning the same event at three Olympics the following evening, winning the 17th overall gold in 100m butterfly, his last individual event. Phelps’s final event was 4x100m medley relay in which he won his 18th career gold and his 22nd overall. By winning 4 gold and 2 silver medals, Phelps concluded the 2012 Olympics as the most successful swimmer for the third Olympics in a row. After his last event, the international swimming federation FINA honored Phelps with an award commemorating his standing as the ‘Most Decorated Olympian.’

After 2012 Olympics, Phelps first retired from swimming, stating: “I’m done. I’m finished. I’m retired. I’m done. No more,” and that “I just wanted to be done with swimming and didn’t want anything to do with the sport anymore.”

In April 2014, Phelps announced he would come out of retirement. Phelps was reportedly motivated by the national team’s failure to win men’s 4x100m freestyle relay for almost five years. Since his returning from retirement in 2014, Phelps “scaled back his calorie intake” and “increased his post swim ice baths.” By the 2016 Olympic Trials, despite his age Phelps “felt physically stronger in the water, perhaps because of drills Bowman added to his pool workouts, like multiple repeats of 40 secs of dolphin kicking while hugging a 10-pound weight to his chest.”

Rio 2016 Summer Olympics

Phelps attended the opening ceremony of Rio 2016 Olympic Games for the first time. Phelps was also voted by the U.S. Olympic swim team as one of six team captains for the US delegation to the Olympics. He displayed a relaxed sociable demeanor in the Athletes’ Village and in press conferences; this pleasant behavior was in stark contrast to his isolation in previous Olympics. He was accompanied by his wife Nicole and son Boomer.

In his first event on August 7, the 4x100m freestyle relay, he won his first gold of 2016 Games and his 19th Olympic gold overall. Phelps swam the second leg with what his coach Bowman described as “maybe the best turn that’s ever been done.” In his second event on August 9, 200m butterfly, he became the first swimmer in history to make five finals in the same event, after finishing 5th in 2000, 1st in 2004 and 2008, and 2nd in 2012. At Rio, he won the title.

Phelps stated that winning back this title had been the main goal during his comeback. At 31, the victory made Phelps not only the oldest male champion, but also the oldest individual champion in Olympic swimming history, beating the records set by Duke Kahanamoku in 1920, and Inge de Bruijn in 2004 respectively. Phelps also became the first swimmer to win individual gold medals 12 years apart.

Also, on August 9, Phelps won his 21st gold medal in 4 x200m freestyle relay. For Phelps and Ryan Lochte, this was their 4th consecutive gold medal in this event, an all-time record in swimming for any event. On August 11, Phelps won his 22nd gold in 200m individual medley. This was Phelps’s 4th consecutive gold medal in the event as well as his 4th in Olympics.

Phelps is the first swimmer ever to win the same event at four straight Olympics – 200m Individual Medley. He joined the Americans, Al Oerter (discus throw) and Carl Lewis (long jump), who have won gold medals in four successive Olympics in the same event. Alongside, he also surpassed the record of three wins in the same individual event in swimming held by Dawn Fraser and Krisztina Egerszegi.

With that 13th individual gold medal, Phelps broke a 2,168-year-old ancient Olympic record, set by Leonidas of Rhodes, Greece who had held the most Olympic individual titles of all time, with twelve. In 100m butterfly, the event he loved swimming the most, Phelps was defeated in his last individual event of Rio 2016 Olympics by Singaporean Joseph Schooling. Phelps had to settle for joint silver medal along with Chad le Clos and Laszlo Cseh.

On August 13, 2016, Phelps ended his distinguished Olympic career with his 23rd Olympic gold and 28th Olympic medal overall from 4x100m medley relay. It so happened the United States’ 1001st all-time Olympic gold medal. Phelps then retired from competitive swimming yet again.

Marriage blessed with three sons

Phelps is married to former Miss California USA Nicole Johnson. They met in 2007 at the ESPYs and got engaged in 2015. They secretly married on June 13, 2016. They have three sons: Boomer Robert Phelps, born May 5, 2016; Beckett Richard Phelps, born February 12, 2018; and Maverick Nicolas Phelps, born September 9, 2019. The family lives in Paradise Valley, Arizona, where Phelps volunteers to his coach Bowman as an assistant for the Arizona State Sun Devils swim team.

Coach Bob Bowman described Phelps as “a solitary man” with a “rigid focus” at the pool prior to a race, but afterward “a man incredibly invested in the success of the people he cares about.” He states that “he’s unbelievably kind-hearted.” As a teenager, Phelps idolized Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe and modeled his public image after Thorpe.

Thorpe initially said that it would be highly unlikely for Phelps to win eight gold medals. Phelps used the remarks as motivation and taped the words to his locker. Thorpe was present when Phelps swam for his eighth gold. Thorpe said, “I’m really proud of him not just because he won eight golds. Rather, it’s how much he has grown up and matured into a great human being. Never in my life have I been so happy to have been proved wrong.”

Honors, Awards and World Records

A street in his hometown of Baltimore was renamed, ‘The Michael Phelps Way’ in 2004. On April 9, 2009, Phelps was invited to appear before the Maryland House of Delegates and the Maryland Senate, to be honored for his Olympic accomplishments. Phelps has received innumerable awards, mostly on multiple times.

Phelps has set 39 world records (29 individual, 10 relay), which is more than any other swimmer that is recognized by the FINA. Phelps holds 21 Guinness World Records of accomplishments and victories in swimming. It is the highest number of accumulative Guinness World Records held by an athlete.

Phelps won 82 medals in major international long course competitions, of which 65 were gold, 14 silver and 3 bronze, spanning the Olympic Games, World Championships and Pan Pacific Championships. Phelps’s international titles and record-breaking performances have earned him the ‘World Swimmer of the Year Award’ eight times and ‘American Swimmer of the Year Award’ eleven times.

Phelps has earned nicknames, “The Baltimore Bullet” and “Flying Fish.” After the 2008 Summer Olympics, Phelps started the ‘Michael Phelps Foundation,’ which focuses on growing the sport of swimming and promoting healthier lifestyles. He co-authored a book with Brian Cazeneuve titled, “Michael Phelps Beneath the Surface,” which was released in 2004.

At Rio 2016, his fifth Olympics, he was selected by his team to be the flag bearer of the United States at the ‘Parade of Nations.’ He announced his second retirement on August 12, 2016, having won 28 Olympic medals which is more medals than 161 countries. He is widely regarded as the greatest swimmer of all time. Besides, he is often considered to be the greatest Olympian of all time.

(The author is the winner of Presidential Awards for Sports and recipient of multiple National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc. He can be reached at [email protected])