On This Day: Phelps equals Spitz with record seven gold medals

On this day in 2007, Michael Phelps won a record seven gold medals at the World Swimming Championships in Melbourne.

Michael Phelps competes in the 400m individual medley final of World Championships, Melbourne.   -  Getty Images

There were plenty of powerful images on the last day of the World Swimming Championships: the bedraggled, besieged Ian Thorpe walking into an overstuffed news conference with the digital cameras hissing; Katie Hoff crying in the pool after breaking the final world record of the meet; Poland’s surprise gold medallist Mateusz Sawrymowicz sitting on a lane line and flexing his muscles for his friends and for his country.

But the sight that best summarised the championships was the stretch of open water that separated Michael Phelps from his closest pursuers as he stroked his way to the finish of the 4x100-metre individual medley and his seventh gold medal in Melbourne.

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In a longstanding sport in which the numbers after the decimal point usually make the difference between first and second, Phelps overwhelmed the paradigm at age 21, routinely pulverising records by a second or two and routinely pulverising the opposition by more, even when allegedly weary. "Honestly, a lot of it tonight was really about adrenaline," Phelps said.

The only parts of his body that do not look aqua dynamic are his protruding ears, but the rest of it undulates through the water at a historic clip, and he made plenty of swimming history in Melbourne, passing Thorpe’s record of six gold medals in a World Championship and joining Mark Spitz as the only man to win seven times in a major meet.

Spitz piled up his gold in a bigger, fancier fish bowl: the 1972 Olympics. But Spitz did not break five world records along the way like Phelps, and Spitz swam only freestyle and butterfly. Phelps swam all four strokes, establishing personal bests or world records in each event in which he competed.

"His performance was the greatest performance of all time," said the U.S. head coach, Mark Schubert. “I guess I don’t really look at it by the medals. I look at it by the dominance and by the records, and the way he handled it from event to event. I just didn’t notice any weak points."

Phelps won both freestyle relays and five individual events: the 100 butterfly, the 200 butterfly, the 200 freestyle, the 200 individual medley and, finally, the 4x100 individual medley, which he broke open on the third leg with his weakest stroke, the breast stroke, and finished in 4 minutes 6.22 seconds.

That was 2.04 seconds ahead of his own world record at the 2004 Olym- pics and 3.52 seconds ahead of his American teammate Ryan Lochte, who won the silver medal.

“I didn’t expect to be two seconds under my world record tonight," Phelps said. “I’m definitely happy with how this turned out. This is definitely the best-case scenario for what we had in mind.

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That was not quite true. When the final day began, he looked well on his way to passing Spitz and winning eight gold medals. But in the end, the only thing that could stop him was someone else’s mistake.

The Gaffe came in the final heat of the men’s medley relay on the morning of April 1. Phelps was resting as his American teammates — Ryan Lochte, Scott Usher, Ian Crocker and Neil Walker — attempted to do the straightforward: qualify the American team for the final of the medley relay.

But Crocker left the starting block one hundredth of a second too early when Usher reached the wall at the end of the second leg. The American team was disqualified after the race, even though its time would have been the fastest over all by more than two seconds.

On March 31, Phelps matched Ian Thorpe’s record of six gold medals on the same day that Thorpe’s legacy was called into question when it was reported by the French sports paper ‘L’Equipe’ that a drug test he took last May was being challenged by swimming’s world governing body, FINA.

At an emotional news conference in Melbourne in which he denied doping, Thorpe, who retired in November, vowed to clear his name and expressed outrage at the fact that his name was leaked although his test had not yet been ruled positive.

Michael Phelps in action at the World Swimming Championships in Melbourne.   -  Reuters Photo


“That’s the hardest thing to take," he said. “So you know my reputation probably is tarnished now. What’s important is to actually get the facts out there and for the right result to come out, which will be a negative test."

Thorpe, the finest middle-distance freestyler in history, won five Olympic gold medals and has become one of Australia’s most revered sportsman. “It’s probably at the other end of the spectrum to winning an Olympic gold medal," he said.

Thorpe said he had been informed by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority that his test in May 2006 had shown unusually high levels of testosterone and luteinizing hormone, a substance produced by the pituitary gland that aids in testosterone production.

“Both of these substances are naturally occurring substances," Thorpe said. “There are many innocent physiological and pathological reasons why a test may return unusual levels of these substances."

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Richard Ings, the chairman of the Australian authority, said that despite FINA’s appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, seeking clarification of the drug test results, the Australian unit’s inquiry had never been closed.

Glenn Tasker, the chief executive of Swimming Australia, said, “I think it would be a real pity if this was to overshadow what Michael Phelps is doing here."

The Americans tied their best performance at a World Championship with 20 gold medals and 36 overall medals, the same totals as in 1978.

Australia, led by Libby Lenton, was second in the standings with 9 gold medals and 21 overall medals. Lenton, the big women’s winner here, took five gold medals, including the 50 freestyle on the last day of the meet. Other winners on the final night included the Australian men in the medley relay, Gerhard Zandberg of South Africa in the men’s 50 back- stroke, Jessica Hardy of the U.S. in the women’s 50 breaststroke, Hoff in the women’s 400 individual medley and Sawrymowicz in a men’s 1500, in which the struggling four-time champion Grant Hackett of Australia finished seventh.

Hoff, 17, won by the Phelpsian margin of 7.25 seconds, in 4:32.89, and broke the record of 4:33.59 set by Yana Klockhkova of Ukraine at the 2000 Olympics.

It was the 14th world record to fall here, but 14 will not be the number that will define Melbourne’s championships. The defining number will be seven, and it really should have been eight.

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