Now that Michael Phelps has swum competitively for the last time — who thinks we’ll ever see him in a Masters meet, or that he’ll make a Janet-Evans/Dara-Torres-like return at 40; and he’s already said that swimming outside the controlled environment of a pool has no appeal to him–the summing-up will begin. Some will be a pure numbers game. By winning his 22nd overall medal as a member of the United States men’s 4×100 medley relay, Phelps would rank in the top 60 if he were a country. And his 18 golds would put him No. 36, just ahead of Argentina.
Then there’s the question: “Is he the the greatest Olympian ever?” This is purely subjective, with some pointing out that only swimmers and gymnasts — because of the multiplicity of events plus relay or team medals — have the opportunity to exceed single digits in medals. There are no medals for a 12-lb or 14-lb shot, nor ‘team’ field events, so legendary US shot-putter Al Oerter was able to collect “only” four gold medals from 1956 to 1968, but by one measure–winning the same event in four consecutive Olympics–Oerter outdid Phelps, as did Carl Lewis who won the long jump from 1984 to 1996, and might have done so in five Olympics had we not boycotted 1980.
By one measure, Phelps’s Olympian accomplishment and influence is unquestioned–the range of events in which he was world-dominant, in distances from 100 to 400 meters and across several disciplines. In fact, he ranked among the world’s elite in every discipline but breaststroke and set an American record in the 100m freestyle, leading off the American 4×100 relay in Beijing. As a result, younger swimmers like Missy Franklin and Chad Le Clos of South Africa, undertook far more varied and ambitious event programs.
Franklin, 17, who competed in the 100 and 200 freestyle and 100 and 200 backstroke plus three relays in London, said “He’s kind of made people rethink what they can do and how they can push themselves.” LeClos, at 12, watched Phelps win six golds and two bronzes at the Athens Olympics and was inspired to become a multiple-threat champion. Eight years later Le Clos swam the same four individual ones as Phelps in London and pulled off a monumental upset when he became the first swimmer in 10 years to beat Phelps in a national, world or Olympic final in his most dominant event–the 200-meter butterfly. Le Clos said. “He was the reason I swam the butterfly. That’s why I swim the 200 freestyle, both the I.M.’s. I don’t swim it for any other reason than just because Michael does.”
Unlike Chad LeClos Phelps had nothing to do with my decision to pursue Continuous Improvement in all four strokes. I’ve had my greatest success (albeit modest by Phelpsian standards) in open water swimming ever since I swam my first ocean race in 1973. Doing so meant swimming freestyle and for distances ranging from one mile to 10km (I’ve swum numerous marathons, but don’t think of them as races).
However I do seek balance in all things. And since I swim almost exclusively longer-distance freestyle in practice for about six months a year, for the last few years I’ve favored swimming shorter distances and all the other strokes for the other six months. And since my instinct is always to have the most beautiful strokes possible, I’ve been pretty tireless in seeking grace and flow in every stroke. I do it mainly for personal esthetic satisfaction — and because I teach the other strokes and strive to inspire others to want to master them.
My philosophy has always been — if another human being can display true aquatic grace in any form, so can I. So I hope Phelps example may inspire other middle-aged swimmers to learn, then master, one or more of the ‘different’ strokes. And to show you how flattering a swimming legend by imitation is possible, here’s a shot of Phelps while winning the 100m butterfly two days ago.
And here’s me several weeks ago in my home pool — a screen shot from the soon-to-be-released TI ebook, Butterfly the Easy Way.