Sometimes, a child takes to the water so naturally he never wants to get out. He just swims away.
On Aug. 10, 2008, Michael Phelps, 23, stepped up to his block at the pool at the Beijing Olympics for the finals in the men’s 400 meter individual medley – a grueling event that requires a swimmer to complete two long laps of butterfly, hard as heck in itself at a race pace, demanding explosive strength; followed by the same distance in backstroke, which can be unnerving; then breaststroke; then crawl. Teammate Ryan Lochte stuck close to Phelps through the first two legs but Phelps pulled away in breaststroke and opened a wider lead in crawl, breaking the world record he’d set in the U.S. Olympic Trials – for a finish in 4 minutes and 3.84 seconds. But expectations were running still higher.
The mark that fans around the world wanted to see Phelps pass had been set by a man who started swimming at Honolulu’s Waikiki beach when he was a toddler. “You should have seen that little boy dash into the ocean. He’d run like he was trying to commit suicide,” his mother told a reporter. That boy, Mark Spitz, set his first world record, in 400 meter freestyle (4:10.60), when he was 17, in 1967. At the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Spitz won seven gold medals, a single-Olympics record.
Phelps, born 13 years later, grew up in the Baltimore area, the son of a state trooper and a middle school principal whose divorce, when he was 9, shattered him. He had started swimming at 7, and it seemed to help with his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. By the age of 10, he was setting national age-group swimming records, some of which still stand. In 2000, at 15, he qualified for the Summer Olympics in Sydney, the youngest male to make a U.S. Olympic swim team since Ralph Flanagan did it at 13 for the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
At the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Phelps won six gold and two bronze medals, the second-best performance at a single Olympics – behind Spitz.
Phelps kept winning in Beijing in 2008. On Aug. 17, he snared his eighth gold of the games with his team in a medley relay. “Epic,” Spitz said. “It goes to show you that not only is this guy the greatest swimmer of all time and the greatest Olympian of all time, he’s maybe the greatest athlete of all time. He’s the greatest racer who ever walked the planet.”
Phelps swam at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London and took another four golds, for a total of 18 in his career, making him the most decorated Olympian in history. And then the world waited to see if he was done.
Phelps emerged from retirement in 2014, and no one doubted he was headed for the 2016 summer games in Rio, when he would be 31. In March 2016, Under Armour released an ad with Phelps, “Rule Yourself,” that gave a stirring taste of his comeback, showing Phelps alone, grinding, as The Kills’ “The Last Goodbye” played, with the tag line “It’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light.” Even Phelps cried when he viewed it. “The world is going to see the real Michael Phelps,” he said.
Then he went to Rio and won five more gold medals, for a total of 23, making him the most successful Olympian of all time. “I wanted to hang my suit up my way,” he said when it was done, “and that’s it.”