May 23, 2019


“Epic,” is how Mark Spitz described U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps’ winning eight gold medals in Beijing, breaking Mr. Spitz’s 36-year-old record for the most gold in one Olympics.

“He just made the pressure putt at the U.S. Open to win it, just won the Tour de France and he just knocked out Muhammad Ali in the last round. He just did all three of the things in a week,” Brendan Hansen said of his teammate after the U.S. team had won a relay, securing Mr. Phelps’ eight gold medals at the games.

Superlatives are often overused and exaggerated, but in assessing Mr. Phelps’ accomplishments, there is little danger of overstatement. As a Visa ad, which aired only minutes after the relay race, noted, new adjectives may be needed to assess Mr. Phelps.

Here is some perspective. As great as Mark Sptiz is – his record stood for 36 years, after all – he swam two strokes – freestyle and butterfly – and none of his races was over 200 meters. Mr. Phelps swam all four strokes and distances up to 400 meters. He also faced more preliminary races than Mr. Spitz.

If they had raced head-to-head, Mr. Phelps would have finished the 200-meter butterfly 14 meters ahead of Mr. Spitz. In reality in 2008, Mr. Phelps edged Laszlo Cseh of Hungary in the 200-meter butterfly by 1.1 meter. His victory over Milorad Cavic of Serbia in the 100-meter butterfly was even narrower, one one-hundredth of a second.

With his times from the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Mr. Spitz would have finished 55th among the 58 swimmers in the 2008 200-meter freestyle and 33rd out of 44 in the 200-meter butterfly.

Mr. Spitz swam without goggles, a cap or a high-tech suit, but the technological advantages in 2008 benefit all swimmers – 25 swimming world records were broken in Beijing (seven of them by Mr. Phelps). Competition sparks Mr. Phelps. He was especially motivated by comments from competitors who said he couldn’t win eight gold medals. He pastes the “can’t do-isms” in his locker and reads them to inspire his swims.

Mr. Phelps’ success wouldn’t have come without the tireless support of his mother, Debbie, to whom the 23-year-old gave his bouquets after receiving each gold medal. She recalled Michael as a young child who constantly asked questions and couldn’t sit still, prompting complaints from his teachers.

He briefly took medication to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but it was swimming where the boy found his focus. The kid who couldn’t sit still in class sat in the stands for hours waiting for his race. The kid who rushed through homework spent hours swimming before and after school, coming home to critique tapes of his performances so he could improve.

Before she left for China, Mrs. Phelps received a letter from her son’s third grade teacher. Maybe it wasn’t focus that young Michael lacked, but a goal worthy of his focus, the teacher wrote.

Winning eight gold medals in Beijing, bringing his Olympic gold total to 14, was a goal that will remain worthy of the world’s focus for years to come.

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