20 years ago today, the sport of swimming changed forever.
On the 3rd day of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, there were 3 Olympic Records broken, and a World Record tied by Pieter van den Hoogenband in the 200 free final. But none of those swims are the pinnacle moment of history that I’m referring to.
Rather, it was a simple preliminary heats swim by a 15-year old named Michael Phelps that will most make September 18, 2000 remembered in swimming. He won his heat, cruising to a comfortable 1:57.30, and qualified 3rd from the semi-finals.
A day later, Phelps would actually miss the podium altogether in his first Olympic final, finishing 5th. And yet, in spite of not a medal to show for his effort, that day 20 years ago was the day that launched the most storied Olympic career in history. That’s a career that would eventually see 23 Olympic gold medals and 28 total medals across 5 Olympic Games.
But Phelps’ career was more than the medals and records, though it was plentiful there. It showed what a swimmer, and what swimming, could be in the increasingly-crowded modern landscape of professional sports in the western world.
Phelps got paid. Phelps was highly visible, even between Olympic years. It wasn’t all glowing reviews all the time outside of the pool, but when Phelps got in trouble, people cared, when Phelps thrived, people cared, and even after he’s gone, when Phelps speaks, people care.
A transcendent figure in the sport of swimming, he showed that an athlete in a sport where the pinnacle is the Olympic Games could be one of the biggest sports stars in the world. He paved the path that has since been followed by the likes of Usain Bolt and Simone Biles to the land beyond the niches of Olympism.
Everything big development in the professionalism of swimmingthat we see today owes a huge debt of grattitude to what Phelps accomplished. The Olympic Trials being held in basketball arenas, not permanent swimming halls; the glimmers of hope and possibility in the International Swimming League; and even your favorite swimming website, SwimSwam.com, probably wouldn’t be what they are today without what Phelps brought to the sport.
There was swimming before Phelps, but since this date 20 years ago, it’s never been quite the same. His first Olympic swim wasn’t an eruption, per se, on its own, but it was the first glimmer of an oncoming explosion quite unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
Michael Phelps‘ First Olympic Race: