Michael Phelps Set Out to Change Swimming, and Did
One by one his rivals formed a handshake line behind the blocks of the London Aquatics Centre on Saturday night and paid homage to the Lord of the Olympic rings, Michael Phelps, who had just collected his 22nd medal, and 18th gold, in his racing finale, the United States men’s 4 x 100 medley relay.
It sounds ludicrous now, but when Phelps set out to become the Tiger Woods of swimming, he had no clue what Mark Spitz had done. Unlike Woods, who kept a tally, like a to-do list, of his golfing idol Jack Nicklaus’s feats, Phelps was looking to the future when he put together the most ambitious Olympic program in the history of his sport.
Before becoming the first swimmer to race in eight Olympic events at the 2004 Games, Phelps was fuzzy on the details of Spitz’s career. It was left to his coach, Bob Bowman, to fill him in on Spitz’s seven-gold-medal performance at the 1972 Olympics. Similarly, Phelps said he didn’t know until recently about the gymnast Larisa Latynina, who reigned for nearly five decades as the most decorated Olympian with 18 medals.
Some architects of history work from a blueprint and others, like Phelps, do not want to acknowledge any ceiling. Phelps transformed swimming, inspiring a generation at home and abroad, by building an audacious program out of grit, guts and a geek’s burning desire to make swimming cool for kids all over the world.
“I wanted to change the sport and take it to another level,” Phelps said.
Mission accomplished. On Saturday, Phelps followed Matt Grevers and Brendan Hansen into the water and 50.73 seconds later, his career over, he gave the anchor, Nathan Adrian, a comfortable lead that he turned into a runaway victory over Japan and Australia.