20 Years Ago Today, Swimming Changed Forever

Braden Keith
by Braden Keith 19

September 18th, 2020 National, News

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:


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1 month ago


Reply to  Bruh
1 month ago

23 (23!) Olympic golds and so many epic swims.., but reading certain comments on this section it seems that Phelps’ career was a failure…

1 month ago

this meet was all about the GOATs. phelps, thorpe, and hackett. thorpe and hackett both had the meet of their lives, and of course this was the beginning of the phelps saga. thorpe’s 400 from this meet was other-worldly…it’s available to watch on youtube

Reply to  swimfast
1 month ago

Thorpe and Hackett both had meets better than the Sydney Olympics. Both were better in 2001 at world champs. Commonwealth Games in 2002 were nuts. That was Thorpe’s best 400.

Last edited 1 month ago by 2Fat4Speed
1 month ago

And yet he became a mentally ill alcoholic. Role model. Paved the way for alcoholic Ryan Lochte and mentally ill Alison Schmitt. And USA Swimming’s beer sponsor. Yep, swimming has never been the same.

Reply to  Hal
1 month ago

…you ok?

1 month ago

Don’t see what the issue is here. It’s all true. Phelps has been dining out on his mental health issues and ongoing rehabilitation. He has an endorsement from, makes commercials for and perhaps has an ownership share of a mental health provider company, and he produced an HBO movie on his mental health issues and those of other Olympians. Lochte and Schmitt are both open about receiving advice from Phelps. He has been arrested at least twice for DUI infractions. Should that just be ignored for hagiography purposes? Phelps wants to be remembered for his mental health work.

6-Beat Kick
Reply to  Hal
1 month ago

You are completely delusional to ignore what he’d done for the sport…..not to mention his story of turning his life around and end his career on a high note.

Reply to  Hal
1 month ago

How TF does this have 32 ups? This is fu**ed!

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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