Why Michael Phelps is the superstar of the pool

It is no exaggeration to say that Michael Phelps has been the central figure of this last decade in swimming, even if he wasn’t competing for half that period. He was the sport’s biggest superstar, relentless in his success.

King of the pool: Michael Phelps of the U.S. celebrates after winning the 200m butterfly gold in the Rio Olympics, in what was touted as the most eagerly anticipated swimming race in years.   -  REUTERS

 

It was on July 31, 2012 that Michael Phelps officially became the greatest Olympian of all time. When he anchored the United States to victory in the men’s 4x200m relay, Phelps won his 19th Olympic medal, surpassing Larisa Latynina, whose record had stood since 1964. It was a bittersweet day for the American, though. An hour before he had broken the record, Phelps had finished with a silver in the men’s 200m butterfly. It was an event Phelps had utterly dominated for nearly eight years, one in which he had won gold at the two previous Olympic Games and the three preceding World Championships. It was a race Phelps simply could not lose. But lose he did, to a 20-year-old from South Africa. Chad le Clos beat Phelps to the wall by five-hundredths of a second, shocking the world.

“I just wanted to race Phelps in the final and I’ve beaten him. I can’t believe it,” le Clos said later. “Phelps is my hero and I love the guy. To beat him, I can’t believe it. You don’t understand what this means to me. This is the greatest moment of my life.”

Phelps had begun the London Olympics somewhat inauspiciously, finishing fourth in the 400m IM on the opening day of the swimming events. It was the first time Phelps had failed to win a medal in an Olympic final since his Games debut in 2000. The following day, he was forced to settle for a silver after America had been beaten by France in the men’s 4x100m relay. Phelps had announced that he would retire at the end of the Olympics and so when the defeat to le Clos came, it seemed as if the right decision had been made. But the hunt for his first gold medal in London soon ended and he eventually finished with four golds and two silvers.

“I don’t want to swim after I turn 30 and that is in three years and I don’t want to swim for another three years,” he said after his final race at the 2012 Olympics. “I have achieved what I wanted to achieve; Bob (Bowman, coach) and I have somehow been able to do every single thing. If you can say that about your career then it’s time to move forward, time to move on to other things. I finished my career how I wanted to.”

Beating his idol: South Africa's Chad le Clos (left) beat Phelps to the wall by five-hundredths of a second, shocking the world in the men’s 200m butterfly in the London Olympics in 2012. “I just wanted to race Phelps in the final and I’ve beaten him. I can’t believe it,” le Clos said later. “Phelps is my hero and I love the guy. To beat him, I can’t believe it. You don’t understand what this means to me. This is the greatest moment of my life,” he said.   -  AP

 

It is no exaggeration to say that Phelps has been the central figure of this last decade in swimming, even if he wasn’t competing for half that period. He was the sport’s biggest superstar, relentless in his success. Beijing saw Phelps reach unprecedented heights; this decade has only reinforced his exalted status.

But the beauty of the Phelps story is that it is a very human one. His farewell in 2012 turned out not to be one. He announced his return to competitive swimming two years later. There was a setback almost immediately, when a drink-driving charge saw him dropped from the US squad from the 2015 World Championships. But he returned from that episode (not his first DUI offence) stronger. It was only much later that the world would learn of the turbulence in Phelps’s life. In 2018, he revealed that he had contemplated suicide after the London Olympics, during a rough battle with depression and anxiety. For four days after the Games, Phelps disclosed at a mental health conference in Chicago, he had remained in his room without food or sleep. “I didn’t want to be in the sport anymore,” he said. “I didn’t want to be alive.”

He told the Today show later that he never even wanted to compete in the 2012 Olympics. “Leading into London, I didn’t want anything to do with the sport,” he said. “I think I was just over it. I think personally I had a lot of struggle getting through the four years after 2008.”

Shining star: Among women it should be remembered as the decade of Katie Ledecky of the United States, with her 15 World Championship gold medals, five Olympic gold medals and three current world records.   -  Getty Images

 

The drink-driving incident of 2014 marked a turning point, Phelps revealed. “I sent myself down a downward spiral,” he told Today’s Matt Lauer. “I think it was more of, of a sign than anything else. That I had to get something under control, whatever it was. I look back at that night, and everything happened for a reason. I was at the lowest place I’ve ever been. Honestly, I sort of at one point, I just, I felt like I didn’t wanna see another day — felt like it should be over.”

Phelps checked himself into a rehab clinic in Arizona, where he spent 45 days before feeling ready to compete in Rio. He had repaired his fraying relationship with Bowman, resolved family issues, and felt fitter and stronger than before with a new training routine. Phelps arrived in Brazil with nothing left to prove to anyone. Except perhaps one person: le Clos. Theirs was not a rivalry in London, but more a case of a young athlete beating an idol on the way out. Le Clos had been respectful in victory, Phelps gracious in defeat.

But in 2015, things changed. Phelps remarked that the slow butterfly times around the world after the London Olympics had encouraged him to come out of retirement. Le Clos duly won the 100m butterfly gold at the World Championships later that year in a time of 50.56 (with Phelps left out of the US squad for his drink-driving offence).

“Michael Phelps has been talking about how slow the butterfly events have been recently,” the South African then said. “I just did a time he hasn’t done in four years. So, he can keep quiet now.”

Sun behind the clouds: China’s Sun Yang shone bright, winning three Olympic gold medals and 11 World Championship golds. He became the first male swimmer to win Olympic and World Championship gold medals at every freestyle distance between 200 and 1500m. But a doping cloud hangs over Sun, who served a three-month ban in 2014 and is alleged to have destroyed vials of blood samples when testers paid him a visit in 2018.   -  AP

 

Two days later, Phelps responded with a 50.45 at the United States senior nationals. “Chad liked me, and then he didn’t like me,” he later said. “He said I was his hero, and then he was calling me out.”

And so the men’s 200m butterfly in Rio became the most eagerly anticipated swimming race in years. In the call-room, before the swimmers were to walk out, le Clos shadow-boxed, ostensibly as part of his warm-up routine, standing only a couple of metres in front of Phelps. It didn’t go down well. Phelps’s face became the subject of internet memes; it was the angriest of angry stares. Le Clos’s mind-games continued onto the starting block but Phelps was unmoved.

He took the lead at the half-way stage and held on to it, reclaiming the gold in an event he had loved and dominated. Phelps clambered onto the lane-marker after the finish, raising his arms to the sky. When the results flashed up on the screen, it turned out that Le Clos had finished fourth. Phelps wagged his finger, as if to tell his adversary that he had provoked the wrong man. Natalie Coughlin, who had retired a few years before, summed it up best on Twitter. “Don’t poke the bear,” she wrote.

Making a mark: Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom proved her mettle by dominating the pool in the second half of the decade.   -  Getty Images

 

That race may have been the highlight but nobody dominated the Rio Olympics swimming programme quite like Katie Ledecky. She had made her Games debut in London as a 15-year-old, winning a surprise gold in the women’s 800m freestyle. Four years later, she left Rio as the most decorated female athlete of the 2016 Olympics, with four gold medals and one silver, and two world records.

This should in fact be remembered as the decade of Ledecky, with her 15 World Championship gold medals, five Olympic gold medals and three current world records. She is still only 22.

Sun Yang also shone bright, winning three Olympic gold medals and 11 World Championship golds. He became the first male swimmer to win Olympic and World Championship gold medals at every freestyle distance between 200 and 1500m. A doping cloud hangs over Sun, who served a three-month ban in 2014 and is alleged to have destroyed vials of blood samples when testers paid him a visit in 2018. But the 2014 ban was for a drug then classified as a stimulant and prohibited only in-competition (the substance, Trimetazidine, is today classified as a metabolic modulator and prohibited at all times). And a final decision from the CAS is still awaited in the case of the alleged sample-destruction.

Adam Peaty and Ryan Lochte also made a mark in the second half of the decade, as did Katinka Hosszu and Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom.

In Indian swimming, Virdhawal Khade’s bronze medal in the men’s 50m butterfly at the 2010 Asian Games ought to be regarded as the outstanding performance of the decade. It was India’s first Asian Games medal in swimming. Four years later, Sandeep Sejwal delivered a second medal, a bronze in the 50m breaststroke in Incheon. Khade nearly claimed his second Asian Games medal in 2018, when he finished fourth in the 50m freestyle, missing out on a bronze in heartbreaking fashion, by 0.01 seconds. Khade set two new national records at the 2018 Asian Games, in the 50m freestyle and butterfly. In both cases, the existing record had been his; Khade’s mark in the 50m freestyle had not been bettered since 2009. The Maharashtrian’s performances are all the more remarkable given that he had taken a break from swimming for four years due to his government job.

India’s bright spot: Virdhawal Khade won the bronze medal in the men’s 50m butterfly at the 16th Asian Games in Guangzhou in 2010.   -  AFP

 

“He’s among the only world-class talents in the country,” says veteran coach Nihar Ameen. “He should have been supported a lot more than he was. But it’s good to see he has remained in swimming for so long.”

“The times are very challenging no doubt, but we are getting close. A lot of hard work is in progress,” says swimming coach Nihar Ameen, a Dronacharya Award winner, adding that the future of Indian swimming will be bright with proper planning.   -  A. M. Faruqui

 

Indian swimming has improved in the last decade, believes Ameen. “There have been improvements for sure,” he says. “The standard of distance swimming — 800 and 1500m — has improved drastically. We have three-four swimmers in the 15-minute bracket, which was never the case earlier. The quality of infrastructure has improved. The sports ministry has been more focused than it has ever been before. We are already planning for 2024 and 2028. They have realised that swimming is on a par with athletics in that there are over 30 Olympic medals on offer.”

In 2012, A. P. Gagan was India’s lone representative at the Olympics, and he made it through the Universality quota. In 2016, Sajan Prakash and Shivani Kataria took the same route to Rio. As the 2020 Olympics draw closer, India yet again has swimmers who have already met the ‘B’ qualifying standard, but there is nobody who has cleared the ‘A’ mark.

 

“The times are very challenging no doubt, but we are getting close,” says Ameen. “A lot of hard work is in progress.” A winner of the Dronacharya Award in 2015, Ameen believes the future of Indian swimming will be bright with proper planning. “We have to really consolidate our resources and plan better,” he says. “We need to model ourselves on the best countries. We need to have similar numbers of swimmers. Our kids need to be racing more. We have one junior national and one senior national meet in the year. It is simply not enough. That is why our swimmers are having to go out to Malaysia and Singapore to race. We need to align ourselves with what the rest of the world is doing.”

Quotehanger

“The national record does not matter to me now. I would have been happier if I timed 25s and won a medal.” — Virdhawal Khade, after missing out on a bronze medal in the 50m freestyle at the 2018 Asian Games.

“This is the last competitive meet I’m going to have in my career. It’s big. It’s something I’ve never experienced. I’m going to have a lot of firsts and a lot of lasts this week.” — Michael Phelps, before the start of the swimming events at the 2012 Olympic Games.

“Once you’ve felt that passion, that thrill of racing the top people in the world, and that goes away, you miss it really quick. And I think that’s why he came back: He missed it, and he wasn’t done accomplishing what he wanted to accomplish in the sport. And I don’t think he’ll be done after this one.” — Ryan Lochte on Phelps’s comeback at the 2016 Olympic Games.

“It feels like gold that I’m after her. I couldn’t have gone any faster, it’s impossible.”— Sarah Sjostrom, after losing to Katie Ledecky in the women’s 200m freestyle at the Rio Olympics.

“I was aware that the Australian athlete had dissatisfaction and personal feelings towards me. Disrespecting me is O.K., but disrespecting China was very unfortunate and I feel sorry about that.” — Sun Yang on Mack Horton, after the latter refused to join him on the podium following the 400m freestyle final at the 2019 World Championships.