Today, June 30th, marks the golden birthday of 22-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps, as the most decorated Olympian of all-time officially enters his 30s.
But even before that milestone birthday, and with what looks like at least one more year of competition left, the Baltimore Bullet has already had a visible and far-reaching impact on the sport we all compete in, coach for, cover and read about.
The latest development, of course, is his new line of tech suits with upstart brand Aquasphere. Phelps is easily the most well-known swimmer in the world, especially among non-swimming fans, and though Aquasphere was a relatively unknown brand prior to this year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see their MP line exploding in profile over the next year or so.
But that’s really just scratching the surface. Below it, Phelps impact on the sport is far more widespread.
In his prime years (media-wise, they were probably the 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Games), Phelps brought the profile of Olympic swimming to new levels, to the point where the sport now boasts some of the highest-priced tickets of any Olympic competition.
In addition, the increase in televised swim meets and the heightened popularity of the Arena Pro Swim Series owes much to Phelps and the wide audience he can draw from outside swimming’s core of current and former swimmers. Just look at how fast spectator tickets flew off the proverbial shelves for the past two Mesa Pro Swim events, each of which has served as a comeback of sorts for Phelps (2014 from retirement and 2015 from suspension).
Then, too, Phelps has had a noticeable impact on the swimmers swimming in those meets themselves. It’s certainly not completely coincidence that USA Swimming is currently watching the rise of its best group of age group swimmers in history.
No doubt there are many factors involved in the massive numbers of National Age Group records being broken at the moment – more efficient techniques, better training methods, more shared coaching knowledge, more connectivity for swimmers to compare their performances with cross-country rivals – but it’s clear swimming is starting to attract kids who aren’t just great swimmers, but great athletes. Look at someone like Breeja Larson, an extraordinary athlete who only joined swimming late in her career. Or better yet, look at young competitors like Michael Andrew or Reece Whitley: young, tall athletic frames who could very easily have ended up playing football, basketball or baseball, but who are fully-dedicated swimmers by the age of 15 or younger, because they’ve seen just how far you can go within the sport.
Kids of the current “age group” crop would have been somewhere around 8-10 years old in 2008, when Phelps made history by winning 8 gold medals at the Beijing Olympic Games. That’s the kind of performance that sticks with you, even if you aren’t yet old enough to fully comprehend all that went into it, and it’s the kind of heavily-lauded achievement that just might make one consider putting on a cap and goggles, just the way the hero on TV did.
Even more specifically, Phelps’ impact can be seen in the large numbers of “all-around” swimmers currently in the age group ranks of USA Swimming. Phelps’ heralded ability to do it all was the key ingredient to winning 22 medals over various strokes and distances. And now we’re seeing more and more young athletes emulating that kind of lineup-bending versatility.
Phelps protege and North Baltimore training partner Chase Kalisz is a prime example, almost a “mini-Mike” in terms of his event focuses (400 IM, 200 fly, 200 IM with constant branching out to 200s of other strokes). Just a tick younger is Kalisz’s new Georgia teammate Gunnar Bentz, another do-it-all Bulldog. And one year behind Bentz is incoming Cal freshman Andrew Seliskar, who emulates Phelps both in his versatility and his dedication to underwater kicking. Those are just three names of many who have no doubt watched Phelps career with keen interest, taking tips and inspiration from what they’ve seen and adding those bits to their own careers.
And this isn’t a purely American phenomenon. Japan’s Kosuke Hagino is perhaps the world’s most versatile male swimmer at the moment, rising to that platform during Phelps’ absence in the aftermath of the London Olympics. Even Hagino, half a world away, has spoken of his admiration for Phelps, and credits Phelps for inspiring him to tackle the IM, backstroke, butterfly and freestyle races at which he currently excels.
That leads into the great rivalries Phelps career has provided over the years. Phelps vs. Hagino is a new one, along with Phelps vs. Le Clos. But stretching back 11 years, older swimming fans can still remember Phelps vs. Ian Thorpe, the American teenager against the Aussie phenom, the figureheads of arguably the two most powerful swimming nations in the world at that point. That was the 2004 Athens Olympics, where Phelps took on Thorpe in one of the Australian’s signature events, the 200 free, and wound up taking bronze.
Four years later was Phelps vs. Milorad Cavic in the famous 100 fly race that came down to fingernails, with Phelps touching out the Serbian swimmer to keep his 8-for-8 dreams alive in Beijing. And four years after that was Phelps vs. Chad Le Clos, with the two trading blows in the 100 and 200 fly races in London.
All along the way, there has been the domestic battle of Phelps vs. Ryan Lochte, likely the two most iconic American Olympic swimmers of the last 15 years. The common denominator in every instance has been Phelps, the man who has for so long worn the bulls-eye of “world’s best swimmer” on his back, taking whatever challenger would come his way.
The next challenger will be time himself. Phelps’ 30th birthday has been the subject of much discussion: can he still compete with athletes in their physical primes? Can his body still handle the rigorous and demanding training he was so long known for? Can he continue to swim his heavy event lineups, or will he have to cut back on swims in the twilight of his career?
Since 2000, only five swimmers have won an individual Olympic medal in swimming while over the age of 30: Brendan Hansen (bronze, 100 breast) and Marleen Veldhuis (bronze, 50 free) did it in 2012. In 2008, it was Jason Lezak (tied for bronze, 100 free) and Dara Torres (silver, 50 free). And in 2004, Inge de Bruin managed to win gold in the 50 free and silver in the 100 free just days before her 31st birthday.
Phelps, of course, is far from an ordinary human being. And his swimming as of late suggests he at least has a shot at a medal of some sort, perhaps even individual gold. There’s no doubt Phelps has his eye on one more record: becoming the first man to repeat as Olympic gold medalist in four consecutive Olympic Games in the same event. He has shots to do it in the 100 fly and 200 IM in Rio.
Ironically, it’s Le Clos and Hagino, two swimmers Phelps likely inspired during his glory years, who now stand in his way for that four-peat.
But no matter how the next four years of his career go, there’s no denying the impact Phelps has had on the sport as a whole. It hasn’t always been pretty, with several personal stumbles and high profile mistakes along the way. But inside the pool – his realm, his comfort zone, his second home – Phelps has been golden in an international career that launched 15 years ago at the Sydney Olympics.
He won’t swim forever; everyone is aware of that. But while he still does – however long he still does – make sure you watch, swimming fans. Sport-transcending talents like these are once-a-generation occurrences.