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The Phelps Effect

Apr 16, 2014  - Adam Sioui

Editor's Note: We all knew it would happen, but it doesn't mean we aren't excited that the greatest swimmer of all time is back! As Michael Phelps heads to a Grand Prix meet in Arizona to race the 100 free and 100 fly on April 24th, we thought everyone would enjoy this piece published in SwimNews magazine back in 2008

It’s a great time to be a sports fan.  During the last calendar year we have seen Roger Federer recently match Pete Sampras’ major tennis record, and Tiger Woods inch closer to Jack Nicklaus’ hallowed golf mark.  In Beijing we witnessed a gold medal triple by Usain Bolt and now find ourselves at a special time in sports history.


Yet as great as all of these individual performances were, none hold a candle to what Michael Phelps has done and continues to do.  Of course bias runs deep in this statement, as I am a lover of everything swimming, yet the results cannot be argued; whereas Federer caught Sampras, Woods is eyeing Nicklaus and Bolt equaled Carl Lewis’ Olympic feat, Phelps stands (and swims) alone in unprecedented waters. 


At the age of 24, Phelps’ laundry list of accomplishments could be an article onto itself, the most impressive of course being known as the most decorated Olympian in history with fourteen gold medals, as well as two bronzes.  If we add the Olympic titles to the World Championships and Pan Pacific Championships he has won, Phelps has accumulated forty golds, six silver, and two bronzes.  He has been the World Swimmer of the year in 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2008, and Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year for 2008. 


Let’s be honest, has there ever been another athlete like Michael Phelps?  Perhaps Michael Jordan, but not even his Airness could top Kareem Abdul Jabar’s career scoring record or Wilt Chamberlain’s rebounding mark.  And yes, Jordan’s likeness is still seen everywhere today; on shoes, clothing, restaurants, billboards.  However, basketball has always been entrenched in the masses, and Jordan only added to the popularity of an already sought-after sport.  I would argue not since the 1980’s with Wayne Gretzky, have we seen someone who has had the success and cultural impact on his or her sport as Phelps has. 


From 1981 to 1986, Gretzky was on an absolute tear.  During those five years, he established new single season standards for goals, assists, and total points, all of which still stand today.  Far more important was the impact he made outside of the statistical box.  Merely hours after winning the Stanley Cup in 1988, Gretzky was traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings, a move that reverberated to the extent that we still see the results today.  Gretzky’s move, which has since been dubbed “The Trade”, single-handedly brought hockey into the mainstream in the southern United States.  The Kings would later boast numerous sellouts and make it to the NHL finals.  During his tenure Gretzky was also credited at least partially, for the establishment of two other Californian franchises, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the San Jose Sharks. 


Growing up, Phelps idolized Australian Ian Thorpe, another teen phenom who had also seen huge success at an early age.  Phelps saw how excited and into it the Australian fans of the sport were and stated that his ultimate end game was to create the same type of following on this side of the world.  Not an easy task for a football, baseball, hockey loving society, and frankly it will never be what the Aussies have, but the impact that a single person has had on the athletic community is extraordinary regardless.  More and more kids now are choosing swimming over traditional power sports, and stands are packed at every event he takes part in.  The recent Santa Clara Grand Prix in California, and Quebec Cup in Montreal can attest to that with over 3,000 people attending the latter.  Quite a feat for a midseason competition in Canada. 


As Gretzky was during the pinnacle of his career, nowadays it’s Phelps and everyone else.  Never in the history of our competitive sport has a single person altered the outcomes of so many others the way Phelps has.  Case in point the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  Remove Phelps from the equation and seven different swimmers are crowned Olympic champions, Hungarian Laszlo Cseh is a triple individual gold medalist, and the French are celebrating relay victory, instead of commiserating over a crushing defeat. 


He has shown countless times over that he can win in any fashion.  Whether it be in a landslide like the ’08 Olympic 400-metre IM or the 200-metre freestyle; or by the faintest of margins where he squeezed by Serbia’s Milorad Cavic by 1 one hundredth of second in the 100-metre butterfly.  When the pressure is turned on high, Phelps wants it on himself as he has lead off numerous relays with world-class times.  And honestly, who else could win Olympic gold in world record time while their goggles were filled with water? 


In his four individual world records, Phelps has taken the previous standards down to unthinkable levels.  The following chart illustrates the before and after:




Record Before Phelps

Record After Phelps

200-metre Freestyle

1:44.06  (2001)

1:42.96  (2008)

200-metre Butterfly

1:55.18  (2000)

1:52.03  (2008)

200-metre IM

1:58.16  (1994)

1:54.23  (2008)

400-metre IM

4:11.76  (2000)

4:03.84  (2008)


It’s not only his groundbreaking performances, but the fact that his results push others to greatness as well.  At the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne, Australia, Phelps dominated the 200-metre butterfly dropping 1.8 seconds to destroy his previous world record and win the event by over three seconds (1:52.09 to 1:55.13).  One year later at the Olympics, Cseh, the silver medalist clocks 1:52.70.  After Phelps has swum these ridiculous times and broken through barriers, it tells his competitors that yes, this is possible.


Quite simply, Phelps is a celebrity.  He has hosted Saturday Night Live, appeared on HBO’s Entourage and has Lebron James’ number in his cell phone.  In Beijing, the Water Cube was the place to be.  Former President of the United States George W. Bush appeared at finals along with the First Lady.  Over the course of the competition, many athletes from other sports showed up at the pool as well, most notably Kobe Bryant and others from the US Basketball and NBA fame.  And with all due respect to the Kosuke Kitajima’s and Stephanie Rice’s of the world, they were there to only watch one man. 


Perhaps to somehow increase his immeasurable talent, Phelps has taken it upon himself to expand his event repertoire.  He has (at least for the meantime) dropped the 400 IM to focus more on the backstroke disciplines and the shorter freestyle sprints.  At the Santa Clara Grand Prix, Canada’s Brent Hayden was recently quoted after besting Phelps in the 100-metre freestyle, “It’s great to have that speed at this point in the season and anytime you beat Michael Phelps it’s icing on the cake. He is such a great competitor and to race against him is an honour.”


Again, this was Hayden, the reigning World Champion in this event, against a man who is just beginning to dabble in it.  The amount of respect that Phelps has earned and demands is remarkable, even in events that are not his specialty.


Of course the black eye on Phelps’ otherwise spotless career would be the DUI arrest in 2004 and the now infamous ‘bong incident’ after the ’08 Games.  And I don’t mean at all to downplay the severity of these acts but the fact that a swimmer made the news for anything other than swimming is both uncommon and remarkable.  This past June, American network ESPN sent reporters to cover and give live updates on Phelps’ events at the Charlotte Ultra Swim in North Carolina.  Everything Phelps does now is breaking news, and his personal goal of putting swimming on the North American map is slowly but surely becoming a reality. 


In a world of ‘what have you done for me lately?’ Phelps continues to deliver time and time again.  At the time of print for this article, he barely missed American Ian Crocker’s world mark in the 100-metre butterfly while competing at the aforementioned Quebec Cup in Montreal, touching just 8 one hundredths shy of 50.40; Crocker’s standard that has stood since the 2005 World Championships, also in Montreal.  Phelps did this all while sporting full facial hair and in the middle of season, as he just recently returned from three weeks of altitude training in Colorado Springs. 


Roger Federer and Tiger Woods will continue to win tournaments and major titles and will most likely go down as the greatest ever in their respective sports.  But while they chase and look up, Phelps has maintained his spot on top of swimming’s hierarchy and can only look at himself for competition.  In a world where we search for the next Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky, perhaps the question should be, will we ever see another Michael Phelps?