Jim Thorpe. Babe Ruth. Edoardo Mangiarotti. Secretariat. Michael Jordan. Wayne Gretzky. Usain Bolt. Muhammad Ali. Dara Torres. Serena Williams. Birgit Fischer. Roger Federer. Others I’ve missed. The Pantheon of legendary athletes. The super humans.
If he wasn’t there already, Michael Phelps has a chance to make it now. He is now going to his fifth Olympics, the first American male swimmer to make five Olympics. He joins Torres as the second American to do so. His first Olympics at age 15, he placed fifth in one event. In his last three Olympics, he’s won 6, 8, and 4 gold medals respectively from 2004-2012. That’s 18 gold medals in total.
Then he retired and the world was sad. The naïve members anyway. Fellow American swimmer Ryan Lochte and the ones that knew Phelps’ psychological profile (me included) knew he’d be back in 2016. The competitor in him is too strong. Phelps may have said he hates training and may do some bonehead things like getting caught with a bong or getting pulled over for a DUI, but even greatness can be stupid at times.
What has not changed is his desire to win. That’s what’s brought him back even though he’s the only Olympian with 10+ gold medals (second is gymnast Larisa Latynina with 9 aka half of Phelps’ total) and he’s the only Olympian 20+ medals (22 total and second is Larisa Latynina with 18). He’s got nothing to prove, but it’s that desire to win that keeps him going.
With all this, I’m still hesitant to crown him the greatest Olympian ever. Mostly because most sports don’t have as many events; most don’t have more than 1-2 specific events an Olympian can compete in. Only swimming, gymnastics, track and field, fencing, shooting, cross-country skiing and canoeing can claim a 10-time medalist. Swimming has multiple distance lengths, a variety styles (strokes swimmers call them), and team relay events, for Phelps to take advantage of and add to his medal total.
On the flip side however, Phelps had the pluses of being exceptionally young when going to the games and racing in multiple events (most sports only have one event or two) that have led to his astronomical totals, but that doesn’t erase what he did, but remind us that he became the best at what he did at age 19 and continued it throughout his 20s. That’s something that just doesn’t happen. It’s like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout hitting home runs in MLB before they were 21.
Phelps is without a doubt the greatest swimmer of all time and it is not unfair or even unwise to assume he can win more medals if not add to his gold total. Even at 31, it’s quite plausible could he could still win. According to data processing done http://www.baltimoresun.com/sports/olympics/phelps/bal-100-days-to-rio-medal-predictions-michael-phelps-to-win-five-golds-20160427-story.html, Phelps would win five more gold and an additional bronze if the Olympics were held today.
These predictions are very realistic since swimming is a racing sport where unless a swimmer screws up or another has a rare freakishly great performance, the viewers typically have a good idea as to who is going to win because of previous times. A swimmer like Phelps who has done these events and trained for more than two-thirds of his life is very unlikely to make a mistake. The only thing I can see slowing him down if is they tied all the gold medals he’s won to his ankles as a handicap.
But maybe the greatest thing about Phelps is he’s brought swimming to national attention through his achievements. Swimming is significantly more popular because of Phelps becoming known throughout households across the globe. Because there are so many Olympians, it’s the rare few that achieve that kind of worldwide acclaim. Phelps is a brand unto himself. He’s followed under a microscope that even the birth of his son, Boomer, two months ago became headline news.
To have him at the Olympics is not only good for Team USA but good for the Olympics because it means people will be tuning into the games in 100 days. Phelps making a fifth Olympics is historic, and his legacy will be enhanced by it. But if he wins gold medal(s) at Rio then we’ll see arguably America’s greatest athlete and Olympian cement his place in the Pantheon with precious metals.
Here’s a fellow American excited to see it happen.