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The Greatest: Stroke By Stroke

Aug 4, 2012  - Craig Lord

A whirlwind tour of the Olympic career of Michael Phelps (USA):

  • 2000 (5th), 2004 (6 gold, 2 bronze), 2008 (eight gold), 2012 (4 gold, 2 silver)
  • Medals: 22 (18 gold, 2 silver, 2 bronze)

Longevity and legacy is where Phelps got to. If Bob Bowman's blueprint had a few scribblings in it about Mark Spitz, Paavo Nurmi, Carl Lewis and Larisa Latynina (and if it did the pencil marks were very faint - this was about process and getting the boy from Baltimore to be the best he could be regardless of what anyone else had done or could do), the swimmer was oblivious to much of that as he hurled towards becoming the Tiger Woods, the Michael Jordan, the be-all-and-end-all of stats in the swimming world.

“I wanted to change the sport and take it to another level,” Phelps said. Mission accomplished. 

Phelps’s 22 medals rank in the top 60 nations in modern Olympic history, Karen Crouse at the New York Times pointed out: his 18 golds would put him No. 36, just ahead of Argentina. His golden tally falls just one gold shy of what the whole of Britain claimed in Beijing to finish fourth nation overall across all sports.

Phelps served as a magnet to excellence and speed, helping the US to make London 2012 its best Games since it hosted at LA back in 1984, a boycott year when some events were a touch softer than they might have been. The greatest swimmer of all-time broke through barriers aplenty, his very scope the property of uncharted waters. 

Tour of Four Games:


Phelps, at 15, is  the youngest USA teamster and finishes 5th; spends most of his Games cheering and painting his face in team colours


Phelps, 19, takes six gold (one of them as a relay reserve in the medley after he hands his place to Ian Crocker, the teammate he pipped by 0.04sec for the 100m butterfly crown) and two bronze medals, the second-best performance ever at a single Games behind Mark Spitz's legendary seven at Munich in 1972.

400m Individual Medley - GOLD

Phelps claims his first Olympic gold in a world record of 4:08.26.

4x100m freestyle - BRONZE

A controversial relay pick, Phelps races with Ian Crocker, Neil Walker and Jason Lezak to third in 3:14.62.

200m freestyle - BRONZE

Taking on two swimming titans in a then-unfamiliar event, Phelps finishes third behind Australian great Ian Thorpe and Dutch freestyle star Pieter van den Hoogenband.

200m butterfly - GOLD

Phelps wins in 1:54.04, taking out Tom Malchow's Olympic record from Sydney 2000 and making amends for a 2002 defeat at Malchow's hand at Pan Pacs that Phelps would later cite as one of the knocks that made his all the more determined.

4x200m freestyle relay - GOLD

Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Peter Vanderkaay and Klete Keller clock 7:07.33 for the title.

200m medley - GOLD

Phelps clocks a 1:57.14 Olympic record for a commanding victory

100m butterfly - GOLD

Phelps defeats Crocker by 0.04sec but Crocker keeps the world record of 50.86 set at US trials ahead of Phelps.

4x100m medley relay - GOLD

Phelps swims in heats but announces that he will forfeit the finals swim for Crocker, who with Aaron Peirsol, Brendan Hansen and Jason Lezak win in a 3:30.68 world record; formerly Phelps would not have got a medal but there were medals for heats swimmers by 2004.


Phelps, 23, makes history as the first athlete in any sport to win eight gold medals at a single Games; that takes him one beyond Spitz, 1972, and boosts his gold-medal tally to 14, 5 more than the next best. The Games are marked by the arrival of polyurethane panelled suits, many of them in bodysuits cut, that boost performance. By January 1, 2010, such suits would be banned as an aid to performance; full 100% poly and other non-textile material, water repellant, shiny suits that burst at the touch of a fingernail but cost $1,000 and more a pop, arrived in late 2008 and contributed to more than 250 global standards falling within a 23-month period before the ban. 

400m individual medley - GOLD

Retains title in world record (4:03.84, his 8th in this event) ahead of Laszlo Cseh and Ryan Lochte.

4x100m free relay - GOLD 

Phelps sets an American record 47.51 leading off, France hits back - and then anchor Jason Lezak clocks a stunning 46.06 in his full suit to sweep past 100m solo champion Alain Bernard for a 3:08.24 victory; on paper the Americans, despite suggestions to the contrary, were favourites - and emerged champions, Garrett Weber-Gale and Cullen Jones in the mix. Lezak's swim kept Phelps's eight-gold medals potential alive

200m freestyle - GOLD

Added gold to 2004 bronze and lowers world record to 1:42.96 with dominant win

200m butterfly - GOLD

Goggles fill with water but Phelps has faced such challenge before, Bowman having even stepped on the boys goggles deliberately when Phelps was 12 to teach him he could cope if it happened cometh then hour.  Phelps retains the Olympic title in a world record of 1:52.03. Phelps's 10th career Olympic gold moves him past icons Paavo Nurmi, Carl Lewis, Spitz and Larisa Latynina (nine golds each) as the most successful Olympian of all time.

4x200m free relay - GOLD

Phelps is among the US quartet that retains the 4x200 free relay, leading the foursome to a world record of 6:58.56. Ryan Lochte, Ricky Berens and Peter Vanderkaay are champions with Phelps.

200m individual medley - GOLD

Another world record hits the dust - in 1:54.23, 2.29sec up on Cseh, Lochte third.

100m butterfly - GOLD

Retains the crown by just 0.01sec, coming from 7th at the turn to Midas Touch at the finish ahead of Serbian Milorad Cavic; questions are raised about who touched first because of video footage that appears to have Cavic at the wall first. Swimming is the only sport in which the athlete stops the clock - and an important part of that is the amount of pressure applied to the Omega timing pads. Omega advises swimmers to make their last stroke count - and not to glide in, the impact on the page taking longer than the finish that nails the result to the wall.

4x100m medley relay - GOLD

US retains title in world record of 3:29.34, Phelps moving US from third to 1st on butterfly; Aaron Peirsol, backstroke; Brendan Hansen on breaststroke and Jason Lezak on freestyle.


Phelps, pledging his fourth Games will be his last, wins four gold and two silver, seizing the record for most medals in a Games career and becoming the first man to win the same individual swimming event at three successive Olympics.

400m individual medley - 4th place

Phelps scrapes through to final, races in lane 8 and cannot match Ryan Lochte (USA), Thiago Pereira (BRA) and Kosuke Hagino (JPN).

4x100m free relay - SILVER

Phelps races second leg but US, anchored by Lochte, cannot fend off a French quartet anchored by Yannick Agnel; Gaul 3:09.93, USA, 3:10.38. A first for Phelps: a silver medal.

200m butterfly - SILVER

South African Chad le Clos pips world record-holder Phelps by 0.05sec for gold in 1:52.96.

4x200m free relay - GOLD

Lochte, Conor Dwyer, Ricky Berens and Phelps claim the crown in 6:59.70. Phelps inherits a big lead and holds off French anchor Yannick Agnel for the first relay three peat ever for Phelps

200m individual medley - GOLD

Phelps, recognising the weakness in Lochte, who has raced form bronze in the 200m backstroke half an hour before, sets a cracking pace on butterfly and exploits the situation further on backstroke on his way to gold in 1:54.27, only 0.04sec slower the  the world record he set for the Beijing crown. Victory makes him the first man in history to win the same event at three Games: he joins the triple club of Dawn Fraser (AUS, 100m free, 1956-64) and Krisztina Egerszegin (HUN, 200m backstroke, 1988-96). 

100m butterfly - GOLD

As in Beijing, Phelps turned 7th best but then powers his way through the field. In the closing 15 metres, he senses the challenge and responds like something the book of Tolkien that might scream "you shall not pass"; he wins in 51.21, Chad Le Clos and Russian Evgeny Korotyshkin sharing silver in 51.44. A second three peat is in the bag.

4x100m medley relay - GOLD 

Phelps enters the water after Takeshi Matsda (JPN) - Matt Grevers and Brendan Hansen having raced - but takes the US back into the lead. Nathan Adrian brings the US home in 3:29.35; the US keeps its unbeaten record in the event and Phelps retires with 22 medals, 18 of them gold.