What defines a generation? What moments are we watching happen now, that will one day stand as the single most defining moment of the 2012 London Olympic Games? Will it be gymnast Gabby Douglas, who became the first American woman to win the gold in both the women’s team final and the all-around competition? Will it be the image of American sweetheart Missy Franklin, flashing her iconic smile as she watched the scoreboard reveal her first individual Olympic gold medal? Or will it be the moment that the man who continues to fearlessly write his name in the record books became the most decorated Olympian of all-time?
On July 31, 2012, the world got to watch just that.
Swimming the 100-meter butterfly on Tuesday, July 31, Michael Phelps trailed South Africa’s Chad le Clos by 5/100ths of a second to earn his 18th Olympic medal, which tied Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina’s 49-year standing record for most Olympic medals earned by an individual. Latynina’s 18 medals came between 1956 and 1964, where she won 14 individual medals and four team medals.
Later that same historic night, the U.S. swimmer swam the first leg in the 4×200-meter relay on his way to a gold medal to surpass Latynina once and for all. That night, Phelps stood atop the podium for the 19th time in his Olympic career, more than anyone else in the history of the Games. Latynina watched from the stands as Phelps swam his way into the record books to claim her title. She later remarked that Phelps rightfully deserved the title. With more Olympic hardware than anyone else the world has ever seen, Phelps became the most dominant Olympian of all time.
Before the powerhouse we are familiar with today, Phelps was a younger brother inspired by his athletic older sisters Whitney and Hilary. The Phelps children were born and raised in Towson, Maryland, a northwest suburb of Baltimore City, where the three swam and attended Townson High School. As the son of a middle school principal and a Maryland state trooper, Phelps followed in his sisters’ footsteps and began swimming when he was seven years old.
Whitney, the oldest of the three, tried out for the U.S. Olympic team in 1996 at the age of 15, but was forced to stop swimming when injuries ended her career and Michael was a far cry from the athlete that we now know. At age seven, Phelps remarked that he was still “a little scared” to put his head under water. In response, his instructors allowed him to float atop the water on his back. Not surprisingly, the first stroke Phelps mastered was the backstroke.
By the age of 10, Phelps set a national record for his age group and began to train at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, where he fatefully met coach Bob Bowman. Bowman immediately recognized Phelps’ raw talent, potential and drive, but Phelps wasn’t always sold on the pool. He said, “Even in high school, I’d tell my mom I was sick of swimming and wanted to try to play golf. She wasn’t too happy. She’d say, ‘Think about this.’ And I’d always end up getting back in the pool.”
It was this sense of determination that shaped Phelps into the fierce athlete that competes on the biggest stage known to sports — the Olympic Games. It was not Phelps’ talent that caused him to stand out; it was his unwavering sense of competition that set the young swimmer apart.
Together, Bowman and Phelps began an intense training regimen, and by 1999 at age 14, Phelps had made the U.S. National B Team. As Phelps continued to improve, the culmination of records led to him qualifying for his first Olympic games at the age of 15, making him the youngest male athlete to make a U.S. Olympic swim team in 68 years.
While his best finish was fifth in the 200-meter butterfly in Sydney, Australia, he would not bring home his first Olympic medal until the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Greece.
Determined to change the sport of swimming, just a year after his Olympic debut in 2005, Phelps broke the world record in the 200-meter butterfly at 15 years and nine months old, making him the youngest man to ever set a swimming world record. Phelps was quickly becoming a name to remember.
At the 2001 World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, Phelps broke his own record with a time of 1:54:35 to earn his first international medal, which we now know to only be the first of many.
Continuing his unprecedented career, the Maryland native set yet another world record in the 400-meter individual medley and U.S. records in the 200-meter individual medley and the 100-meter butterfly at the 2002 U.S. Summer Nationals in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Just a year after that, Phelps broke his own world record in the 400-meter individual medley with a time of 4:09:09.
By the time Phelps was a high school graduate in 2003, he had two world records, and by the close of the 2004 Olympic Trials, he had set another five.
Making his second Olympic team in 2004, Phelps returned from Athens, Greece with eight medals, including six gold and two bronze. Even before Latynina, this marked the first instance in which Phelps broke a Soviet gymnast’s record: the most medals earned in a single Olympic Games, which had previously been set by Aleksandr Dityatin in 1980. In 2004, Phelps took home the bronze in the 200-meter freestyle and the 4×100-meter freestyle relay, and brought the gold home to the United States in the 400-meter individual medley where he broke his own world record, the 100-meter butterfly, 200-meter butterfly, 200-meter individual medley, 4×200-meter freestyle relay and 4×100-meter medley relay.
After returning home from Athens, Phelps began the most intense training regimen of his career to carry him into the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where he made the epic and historic eight-for-eight golden haul in Beijing’s Water Cube.
In addition to hours upon hours logged in the pool daily, Phelps followed an astonishing 12,000-calorie diet. A typical breakfast for the Olympian would include two cups of coffee, a five-egg omelet, one bowl of grits, three slices of French toast with powdered sugar, three chocolate chip pancakes and three fried egg sandwiches with a generous amount of cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, fried onions and mayonnaise — and that’s just how he would begin the day.
Leading up to the 2008 Summer Games, Phelps routinely set records at the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships in Victoria, British Columbia and at the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne, Australia.
It was at the 2008 Games in Beijing where Phelps would take home the gold in every event that he swam, which ironically turned out to be the exact same program he would swim four years later in London, despite remarks that he would never swim such a large program again.
Phelps wanted to set a new precedent — he wanted to take the sport to a new level and to make the world pay attention. As a face in the crowd and a witness to history, when we think of Phelps we picture his iconic battle cry after defeating the French in the 4×100 relay in Beijing. We think of the champion determined to make a splash, determined to change the game and determined to win. “I feel most at home in the water,” Phelps said. “I disappear. That’s where I belong.”
As a witness to the greatest Olympian of all time, it seems as if Phelps belongs atop the podium, with his right hand over his heart as the world bares witness to his athleticism. It would seem that the 27-year-old doesn’t belong on the reel of “memorable moments” just yet. He belongs in the water, in the pool, in the arena that we’ve watched him own for the past 12 years. But if Phelps keeps his word, these games will mark the last time he takes home an Olympic medal, the last time he takes the podium and the last time he takes the to the water.
Regardless of whether or not we will see him swim again on such a stage, Phelps rightfully belongs in the history books — as the greatest Olympian of all time.