Who Is Michael Phelps?
Michael Phelps is an American swimmer who holds the record for the most Olympics medals won by any athlete at 28, including 23 gold medals and 13 individual golds. Phelps competed in his first Olympics at the age of 15, as part of the U.S. men's swim team. He was the first American male swimmer to earn a spot on five Olympic teams and also made history as the oldest individual gold medalist in Olympic swimming history at the age of 28.
Early Life and Family
Michael Fred Phelps was born on June 30, 1985, in Baltimore, Maryland. The youngest of three children, Phelps grew up in the neighborhood of Rodgers Forge. His father, Fred, an all-around athlete, was a state trooper and his mother, Debbie, was a middle-school principal. When Phelps' parents divorced in 1994, he and his sisters lived with their mother, with whom Phelps grew very close.
Phelps began swimming when his two older sisters, Whitney (born 1978) and Hilary (born 1980), joined a local swim team. Whitney tried out for the U.S. Olympic team in 1996, at the age of 15, but injuries derailed her career. At age seven, Phelps was still "a little scared" to put his head underwater, so his instructors allowed him to float around on his back. Not surprisingly, the first stroke he mastered was the backstroke.
After he saw swimmers Tom Malchow and Tom Dolan compete at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, Phelps began to dream of becoming a champion. He launched his swimming career at the Loyola High School pool. He met his coach, Bob Bowman, when he started training at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club at the Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center. The coach immediately recognized Phelps' talents and fierce sense of competition and began an intense training regime together. By 1999, Phelps had made the U.S. National B Team.
University of Michigan
Phelps followed his coach to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where Bowman coached the Wolverines' swim team, to study sports marketing and management. Meanwhile, Phelps continued to establish world records at the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships in Victoria, British Columbia, and the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne, Australia.
2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney
At the age of 15, Phelps became the youngest American male swimmer to compete at an Olympic Games in 68 years. While he didn't win a medal at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, he would soon become a major force in competitive swimming.
First World Records
In the spring of 2001, Phelps set the world record in the 200-meter butterfly, becoming the youngest male swimmer in history (at 15 years and 9 months) to ever set a world swimming record.
Phelps then broke his own record at the 2001 World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, with a time of 1:54:58, earning his first international medal.
Phelps continued to set new marks at the 2002 U.S. Summer Nationals in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, establishing a new world record for the 400-meter individual medley, and U.S. records in the 100-meter butterfly and the 200-meter individual medley. The following year, at the same event, he broke his own world record in the 400-meter individual medley with a time of 4:09.09.
Shortly after graduating from Towson in 2003, 17-year-old Phelps set five world records, including the 200-meter individual medley at the World Championships in Barcelona, Spain, with a time of 1:56:04. Then during the U.S. trials for the 2004 Summer Olympics, he broke his own world again in the 400 meter individual medley, with a time of 4:08:41.
2004 Summer Olympics in Athens
Phelps became a superstar at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, winning eight medals (including six gold), tying with Soviet gymnast Aleksandr Dityatin (1980) for the most medals in a single Olympic Games.
Phelps scored the first of six gold medals on August 14, when he broke his own world record in the 400-meter individual medley, shaving 0.15 seconds off of his previous mark. He also won gold in the 100-meter butterfly, 200-meter butterfly, 200-meter individual medley, 4-by-200-meter freestyle relay and 4-by-100-meter medley relay). The two events in Athens, in which Phelps took bronze medals, were 200-meter freestyle and the 4-by-100-meter freestyle relay.
2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing
At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China, Phelps won his 14th career gold medal, the most gold won by any Olympian — surpassing swimmer Mark Spitz's 1972 record of seven golds. He also set the record for the most gold medals won in a single Olympics by winning eight gold medals, in the 4-by-100-meter medley relay, 4-by-100-meter freestyle relay, 200-meter freestyle, 200-meter butterfly, 4-by-200-meter freestyle relay, 200-meter individual medley and 100-meter butterfly. Every gold medal performance set a new world record, except the 100-meter butterfly, which set an Olympic record.
2012 Summer Olympics in London
At the 2012 Olympic Games, held in London, Phelps' Olympic medal count increased to 22, setting a new record for most Olympic medals (beating gymnast Larisa Latynina's prior record of 18). He won four gold medals, in the 4-by-200-meter freestyle relay, 200-meter individual medley, 100-meter butterfly and 4-by-100-meter medley relay; and two silver medals, in the 4-by-100-meter freestyle relay and 200-meter butterfly.
Temporary Retirement in 2012
After the London Olympics in 2012, Phelps announced he was retiring from swimming. However, he gave some indication of a possible return in July 2013 and would not rule out a possible Olympic bid for the 2016 summer games. In April 2014, Phelps put the retirement rumors to rest and announced plans to compete at the Mesa Grand Prix in Arizona.
Meanwhile, the sports world continued to speculate whether Phelps would compete in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. His longtime coach Bowman told the Washington Post:
“I don’t know yet. Honestly, we’re kind of taking it day by day. I don’t think either one of us has real expectations other than to have fun, see what happens and go from there. Unlike previous years, there’s no long-term plan.”
While Phelps did compete at the Mesa Grand Prix, he made a more impressive showing at the Pan Pacific Championships held that summer in Australia, winning three golds and two silvers.
2016 Summer Olympics in Rio
On June 29, 2016, Phelps celebrated a huge comeback when he became the first American male swimmer to earn a spot on five Olympic teams. His then-girlfriend Nicole Johnson, their baby, Boomer, and Phelps' mother Debbie watched the Olympic legend break history from the stands in Rio.
On August 7, 2016, Phelps clinched his 19th Olympic gold medal in Rio swimming the second leg of the men's 400 freestyle relay. He went on to win gold in both the 200-meter butterfly and in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay along with Conor Dwyer, Townley Haas and Ryan Lochte.
“Doing a double like that is a lot harder now than what it once was,” Phelps said about competing in the races at the age of 31. “That is for sure.”
Phelps went on to compete in the 200-meter individual medley, an event dubbed "the Duel in the Pool" because he faced off against friend, teammate and rival Ryan Lochte, the world record holder in the race. Phelps dominated the race, winning gold in over a body-length at 1:54.66 seconds, right behind Lochte's record of 1:54.00. Lochte failed to medal. Phelps' victory made him the first swimmer to win four consecutive golds in the same event.
"I say this a lot, but every single day I'm living a dream come true," Phelps told NBC Sports. "As a kid, I wanted to do something that no one had ever done before, and I'm enjoying it. Being able to finish how I won is just something very special to me and this is why you are seeing more and more emotion on the medal podium."
Phelps then competed in the 100-meter butterfly, tying for the silver medal with Laszlo Cseh of Hungary and Chad le Clos of South Africa. Joseph Schooling of Singapore, a 21-year-old swimmer who idolized Phelps when he was boy, won the gold.
In another emotional victory, Phelps took gold again in his final Olympic race, helping the U.S. team take the top spot in the 4x100-meter medley relay with teammates Ryan Murphy, Cody Miller and Nathan Adrian. Upon finishing, the most decorated Olympian in history received a standing ovation from the crowd.
In a huddle with his teammates following the race, Phelps felt the emotion of the moment, according to the New York Times. “That’s kind of when everything started to hit harder, knowing that was the last time I’ll wear the Stars and Stripes in a race,” he said.
Medals and Records
Phelps has accumulated a total of 28 medals at the Olympic Summer Games in Athens, Beijing, London and Rio — 23 gold, three silver and two bronze — setting the record for the most medal wins by any Olympic athlete. At the 2016 Olympic Games, he won one silver and five gold medals, becoming the oldest individual gold medalist in Olympic swimming history, as well as the first swimmer to win four consecutive golds in the same event, the 200-meter individual medley. Phelps has set 39 world records, the most of all time.
Phelps confirmed that he was retiring following the 2016 Summer Olympics.
"I've been able to do everything I've ever put my mind to in this sport. And 24 years in the sport. I'm happy with how things finished," he said. "I'm ready to retire. I'm happy about it. I'm in a better state of mind this time than I was four years ago."
Phelps is just under 6 feet, 4 inches tall. He has a disproportionately large wingspan, reaching a bit less than 6 feet 7 inches from fingertip to fingertip, and a torso with measurements that are more common in a man who measures 6 feet 8 inches tall.
When he broke the world record in the 100-meter butterfly at the 2009 World Championships, Phelps swam at an astonishingly speedy (or at least by human standards) 5.5 miles per hour. ESPN has put Phelps’ top swimming speed at 6 miles per hour.
Diet and Daily Calories
During an interview in the midst of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, Phelps told NBC that he ate 12,000 calories per day to fuel his five-hour, six-days-per-week training leading up to the Games. His diet reportedly consisted of hefty choices like two pounds of pasta and entire pizzas.
“Eat, sleep and swim. That’s all I can do. Get some calories into my system and try to recover the best I can,” Phelps said at the time.
However, in June 2017, he cleared up his eating habits:
“Don’t believe everything you read. The stories were just ridiculous. I was probably eating anywhere between like 8 to 10 [thousand] probably at my peak where I was really growing. Still, it became a job,” he said at an event in New York City.
Just weeks following his triumph in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Phelps was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol in Salisbury, Maryland, after cruising through a stop sign. He pleaded guilty to driving while impaired, was sentenced to 18 months probation, fined $250, ordered to speak against drinking and driving to high school students, and ordered to attend a Mothers Against Drunk Driving meeting. Michael called it an "isolated incident," but admitted to letting himself and his family down.
In the fall of 2014, Phelps was arrested again in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland in September for driving under the influence, speeding and crossing double lines. He took to Twitter to discuss this incident, writing "I understand the severity of my actions and take full responsibility." Phelps also apologized to "everyone I have let down."
In January 2018, Phelps delivered an eye-opening account of his battles with depression at the fourth annual conference of the Kennedy Forum, a behavioral health advocacy group.
The athletic great described how he would fall into a state of despair after the highs of his Olympic victories, often seeking to medicate himself through drugs or alcohol. He said the "hardest fall" came after the 2012 Olympics when he found himself sitting in his room alone for three to five days, not eating and barely sleeping: "I didn't want to be in the sport anymore," he recalled. "I didn't want to be alive anymore."
The experience prompted him to seek help, and Phelps said he came to realize that "it's OK to not be OK," though he acknowledged there was still a stigma associated with mental illness. "I think people actually finally understand it is real," he said. "People are talking about it and I think this is the only way that it can change."
Phelps reiterated many of those sentiments while appearing on David Axelrod’s The Axe Files podcast weeks later. He estimated that as many as 90 percent of Olympic athletes go through a post-Games depression, and called on the U.S. Olympic Committee to do more to help.
"We're competing to represent our country. We're competing to do everything we can to try to win a medal or to try to do our country proud by wearing the stars and stripes on international ground," he told Axelrod. "When we come home from it, you know, they're like, kind of, 'OK, check. Who's the next kid coming in? Where's the next person?’ And I think it's sad."
Phelps married Nicole Johnson on June 13, 2016. After dating on and off since 2011, Phelps popped the question in February 2015. The couple was married in a private ceremony in Paradise Valley, Arizona, although their wedding was kept secret until TMZ broke the news in October 2016.
Phelps and Johnson have three sons: Boomer Robert (b. May 5, 2016), Beckett Richard (b. February 12, 2018) and Maverick Nicolas (b. September 9, 2019).
Phelps vs. Shark
For the 2017's Shark Week, Michael Phelps raced several breeds of sharks. The team developed a special device to measure each shark’s speed using bait. Phelps wore a monofin to approximate the movements of a shark (and get a bit of added propulsion). They did not swim the 100 meters side by side but rather individually in the same open water, with CGI images of the sharks displayed alongside Phelps as he raced. Their times were later compared.
"Honestly, my first thought when I saw the shark was, 'There's very little chance for me to beat him,'" Phelps said.
The hammerhead shark swam the distance at 15 miles per hour, while the great white shark swam at a whopping 26 miles per hour. Phelps only beat the reef shark by 0.2 seconds, clocking in at 6 miles per hour.
In addition to his successful swim career, Phelps has written two books, Beneath the Surface: My Story (2008) and No Limits: The Will to Succeed (2009).
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