On this day 15 years ago, Michael Phelps won his first-ever Olympic event, the 400 IM at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
At that time, Phelps was still a young phenom looking for his first taste of Olympic glory. He qualified for the 2000 Sydney Olympics at age 15, finishing 5th but not medaling. By 2001, he was setting world records and winning World titles, so he was far from an unknown entity by Athens in ’04. Still, the then-19-year-old Phelps was equally far from the icon he’d eventually become, based largely on his longevity in the sport.
Phelps has been retired (not counting his previous retirements that didn’t stick) for only three years now. Looking back to his first Olympic gold shows just how long the Phelps era was – the other medal winners from Athens are like names out of history books: Gary Hall, Jr., Pieter van den Hoogenband, Ian Thorpe, Grant Hackett, Aaron Peirsol and Kosuke Kitajima. Men were winning Olympic golds with 54-second backstrokes, breaststrokes over a minute and freestyles over 48 seconds.
Phelps’ competitive career not only spanned five Olympics and the better part of two decades, it also encompassed multiple generations of top international swimmers and saw vast changes in the sport.
In honor of the 15-year anniversary of Phelps first Olympic gold (the start of 23 career golds and 28 total Olympic medals), here’s a look back at some facts that were true as of the morning of August 14, 2004:
- The world record in the 400 IM was 4:08.41, set by Phelps at U.S. Olympic Trials. Over the past two years, he’d incrementally moved the record from 4:11.76, and over the next four, he’d lower the record four more times to 4:03.84.
- In the history of the sport, Phelps was the only man who had ever broken 1:54 or 1:55 in the 200 fly. In 2019 alone, seven men broke 1:55, and 39 men in history have done so.
- The most-decorated Olympian of all-time was Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, who won 18 medals (9 of them gold) between 1956, 1960 and 1964. It would only take Phelps two Olympic Games’ to surpass her gold total, winning 14 between 2004 and 2008. He’d take over the overall medal lead during the 2012 Olympics, and ultimately finished with 10 more overall medals and 14 more golds than Latynina.
- FINA rules still disallowed any underwater dolphin kicks during breaststroke. Kitajima faced widespread criticism for appearing to use a dolphin kick underwater during his pullouts. The rule was amended in 2005 to allow a single downward dolphin kick off the start and turns.
Here is race video of that first Olympic gold of Phelps’ career: