Michael Phelps was going to be at the top of this list before the 2016 Olympics, but with the Rio games now behind us, there’s no doubting his place in history. By any measure, Phelps is not just the greatest American Olympian of all-time, he’s the greatest to ever participate in the games. Arguments can be made for other athletes but in the end, they fall flat when stacked against Phelps’ brilliance.
The Olympics have been over for a week, but it truly took that much time to put what Phelps has done into proper perspective. Not just for the Olympics but for sports in general. No one has ever been as dominant in their field for as long as Phelps. Not only that, it’s hard to find anyone who stepped up on the big stage and come through with as much consistency as the Maryland native.
Phelps grew up in the Rodgers Forge neighborhood of Baltimore as the youngest of three children. His older sisters and mother Debbie raised him, as his father was out of the picture after his parents divorced in 1994. Phelps struggled with ADHD and later depression for years but he found refuge in swimming and began to gain notoriety at just 10 years old. Phelps set a national age group record in the 100-meter butterfly when he was 10, and started to train with the now-famous Bob Bowman at the North Baltimore Athletic Club. The two were a perfect match and Phelps’ career took off quickly. As of 2016 he still holds 12 age group records.
Phelps just finished his fifth trip to the Olympics. Many people forget he actually made his debut at the 2000 games in Sydney as a 15-year-old. He reached the finals of the 200-meter butterfly, finished fifth and missed a medal by less than a second. That was one of just two times in Phelps’ Olympic career that he failed to medal in a race.
In 2004 at the Athens games, Phelps took the swimming world by storm. He won six gold medals in the eight events he participated in. He took individual gold in the 100 and 200-meter butterflys, the 200 and 400-meter individual medleys, while earning bronze in the 200-meter freestyle. His also earned gold in the 4×200 freestyle relay and 4×100 medley relay and added a bronze in the 4×100 freestyle relay. Phelps set three individual Olympic records and one world record. At just 19 years old he was already the best swimmer in the world and had turned in one of the greatest Olympic performances of all-time. And he was just getting started.
We all know what happened four years later in Beijing. As a 23-year-old, Phelps dominated the 2008 Olympics winning a record eight gold medals, while setting seven world records and one Olympic record.
With a reduced program, Phelps went to the 2012 Olympics in London hoping for more gold. The games opened in shocking fashion as he failed to medal in the 400 individual medley, finishing fourth. That was just the second time he hadn’t medaled in an Olympic event. He turned things around though, earning two individual golds (100 butterfly, 200 individual medley), two relay golds (4×200 freestyle, 4×100 medley) and two silvers (200 butterfly, 4×100 freestyle relay). Anyone else would have been thrilled with that performance, but not Phelps. And for good reason, he hadn’t trained as hard as he should have and was distracted by the trappings of fame.
While Phelps claimed the 2012 Olympics were his swan song, retirement didn’t go smoothly. He wound up making headlines for all the wrong reasons and got his second DUI in 2014. In his own words, Phelps was on a “downward spiral” and wound up in rehab.
Determined to put the bad taste from 2012 out of his mouth, Phelps began training in earnest for the 2016 Olympics. We all know how that went. He focused on his core events and put together a manageable program that saw him in three individual races and three relays. At 31 years old, he medaled in all six races, earning five golds and one silver. Phelps took his fourth-straight Olympic title in the 200 individual medley, while earning back the title in his signature event, the 200 butterfly. In the 100 butterfly he tied for silver while also leading all three U.S. relay teams to gold. It was an incredible showing and wiped away all the bad memories from London. Phelps now claims he’s retired for good, but we wouldn’t be shocked if he made a run at the 2020 Olympics with a seriously abbreviated program.
If he is truly done, Phelps will finish his Olympic career with an astonishing 28 medals, 23 of which are gold. He competed in 30 Olympic events during his career and medaled in all but two of them and one of those losses came when he was just 15 years old. That is an absolutely incredible record of success. In 18 individual events, he earned 16 medals, 13 of which were gold. In the process, Phelps broke an Olympic record that had stood for 2,168 years. Leonidas of Rhodes had held the record for most individual Olympic championships since 152 BCE with 12. Phelps has set the new standard.
For his career, Phelps set 39 world records (29 individual, 10 relay), the most in swimming history. He still holds world records in the 100 butterfly, 200 butterfly and 400 individual medley, while also still owning the American record in the 200 freestyle. In all he holds six long course world records (all three relays added to his individual records) and one short course world mark (4×100 freestyle relay).
Many have claimed that the nature of swimming has elevated Phelps because the sport’s multiple disciplines have allowed him to rack up a ton of medals. While there is usually some value in that argument, the sheer volume of titles Phelps has won across four separate Olympics blows it out of the water in this case. Phelps has more Olympic medals than anyone else by a mile. Second place is Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina with 18 and fellow Soviet gymnast Nikolai Andrianov is third with 15. Latynina is also tied for second in gold medals with Finland’s Paavo Nurmi, Americans Mark Spitz and Carl Lewis and Jamaica’s Usain Bolt. They all have nine, Phelps has 23.
If we want to talk individual events (no relays or team events allowed), Phelps still dominates the field. He is first in gold meals (13) ahead of Ray Ewry (eight), Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska and Lewis (seven). In total individual medals he maintains first place with 16 over Latynina (14) and Andrianov (12).
Phelps is 31 and has accomplished far more than any other Olympian. He has won events at a ridiculously high rate and could probably continue to do so in the near future. He’s not only the greatest American Olympian of all-time, he’s the greatest to ever compete in the Olympics in any era, from any country.