Beyond the 8 Golds: Michael Phelps’ Goal Times For the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Most people don’t know Michael Phelps‘ career-best times, much less the times he actually posted when he won his 8 gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. It is rather common knowledge that he won the 100 butterfly by a nerve-wracking 1/100th of a second, but in a sport that is intrinsically measured by time, no swimmer sets their sights solely on winning without also having a goal time to chase after.

In a 60 Minutes feature recorded a few months after the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics when Phelps was perhaps the most popular human being on the entire planet, the 23-year-old Phelps and coach Bob Bowman showed 60 Minutes a sheet of paper listing Phelps’ goal times and splits for every event he would swim in Beijing, and then some.

Diligent swimming fans probably already know that Phelps was way off his goal in the 200 fly (gold medal number 4) thanks to his goggles filling with water. Despite the setback, Phelps still won the race and lowered his World Record from the year before, even if by just 6/100ths of a second. Likewise, Phelps’ start, turn, and finish all left something to be desired in the 100 fly, though in the final meters he miraculously got his hands on the wall 1/100th ahead of Serbian Milorad Cavic, securing gold medal number 7 to tie Mark Spitz‘s record from the 1972 Munich Games.

It is easy to reflect on Phelps’ achievement in Beijing and feel nostalgic, though we mustn’t forget that the Beijing Olympics were, ultimately, one of many swim meets Phelps competed in over the course of his career. And like any other meet, Phelps and Bowman had goal times they wanted to achieve at the Water Cube.

Though Phelps set World Records in 4 of his 5 individual races (plus 3 more through relays), he did not achieve all of the goal times he and Bowman had established in 2007. Furthermore, Phelps and Bowman were not focused exclusively on the races he swam in Beijing and had also set goals for the 400 freestyle, 1500 freestyle, 100 backstroke, and 200 backstroke.

Phelps achieved his goals in the 100 freestyle, 200 freestyle, and 400 IM, though he was off in 100 butterfly, 200 butterfly, and 200 IM, though in the interview he says the two fly races were the only ones he “didn’t hit.”

It is interesting to note that Phelps’ goal times in the 400 freestyle and 200 backstroke would have been World Records in 2008 (to this day nobody has broken 3:40 in the 400 freestyle). Oddly, his 100 backstroke is only listed as a 53.0 even though his best time in 2007 was a 53.01, a mere 0.03 shy of Aaron Peirsol‘s World Record from the same year.

Phelps registered a new American Record leading off the 4 x 100 freestyle relay in Beijing, missing the then-World Record by only 0.01, though at the same time Australia’s Eamon Sullivan blasted a 47.24 to take a full 0.27 off the mark set earlier that year by France’s Alain Bernard. The relay marked the only time Phelps swam the 100 freestyle in China as he did not race it individually, and the time still stands as his lifetime best.

Phelps’ Goal Times and Results – 2008 Beijing Olympics

Event Phelps’ Goal Phelps’ Result WR Prior Beijing
100 Freestyle 47.50 47.51 47.50
200 Freestyle 1:43.5 1:42.96 1:43.86
400 Freestyle 3:39.0 DNS 3:40.08
1500 Freestyle 15:05-15:10 DNS 14:34.56
100 Backstroke 53.0 DNS 52.98
200 Backstroke 1:53.5 DNS 1:54.32
100 Butterfly 49.50 50.58 50.40
200 Butterfly 1:51.1 1:52.03 1:52.09
200 IM 1:53.5 1:54.23 1:54.80
400 IM 4:04.0 4:03.84 4:05.25

In addition to the actual times Phelps and Bowman hoped to achieve in Beijing, the piece of paper glimpsed during the interview with 60 Minutes also shows the splits that would be necessary to get Phelps the phenomenal times he hoped to achieve.

Phelps’ Goal Times and Splits – 2008 Beijing Olympics

Event Phelps’ Goal
100 Freestyle 47.50
1st 50: 23.5
2nd 50: 24.0
200 Freestyle 1:43.5
1st 50: 24.5
2nd 50: 26.0 1st 100: 50.5
3rd 50: 26.5 150m: 1:17.0
4th 50: 26.5 2nd 100: 53.0
400 Freestyle 3:39.0
1st 100: 52.0
2nd 100: 56.0 1st 200m: 1:48.0
3rd 100: 56.0
4th 100: 55.0 2nd 200m: 1:51.0
1500 Freestyle 15:05-15:10
1st 100m: 56
2nd-14th 100m: 1:01
Final 100m: 57
100 Backstroke 53.0
1st 50: 26.0
2nd 50: 27.0
200 Backstroke 1:53.5
1st 50: 27.0
2nd 50: 28.5 1st 100: 55.5
3rd 50: 29.0
4th 50: 29.0 2nd 100: 58.0
100 Butterfly 49.50
1st 50: 23.5
2nd 50: 26.0
200 Butterfly 1:51.1
1st 50: 25.0
2nd 50: 28.5 1st 100: 53.5
3rd 50: 28.8
4th 50: 28.8 2nd 100: 57.6
200 IM 1:53.5
1st 50: 25.5
2nd 50: 28.5 1st 100: 54.0
3rd 50: 33.5
4th 50: 26.0 2nd 100: 59.5
400 IM 4:04.0
1st 100: 55.0
2nd 100: 1:00.0 1st 200: 1:57.0
3rd 100: 1:11.0
4th 100: 57.0 2nd 200: 2:07.0

After slowing the video down to 25% of normal speed and attempting many times to pause at just the right moment, we arrive at these stunning images… though you shouldn’t expect to see these among SwimSwam’s best photographs of 2020, it does give us a look into what was going on behind the scenes with Phelps on the way to Beijing.

The picture below shows (through a heavy blur) the goal sheet Phelps and Bowman put together in 2007 as they readied for the Beijing Olympics.

Though Phelps fell short of his goals in the 100 and 200 fly events in Beijing, he broke both World Records the following summer at the 2009 World Championships in Rome, setting marks that would stand for 10 years. Of course, it is difficult not to wonder what Phelps would have done in the 200 fly had his goggles not filled with water forcing him to count his strokes for the majority of the race, making his victory simultaneously legendary and frustrating.

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daeleb cressel
1 year ago


Daeleb Cressel
Reply to  daeleb cressel
1 year ago

Bruh that’s my username; straight up identity theft moment.

Reply to  Daeleb Cressel
1 year ago

Millions of families suffer every year!

Reply to  Daeleb Cressel
1 year ago

Identity theft is not a joke Jim!

1 year ago

it’s very interesting that he had a 1500 goal

Reply to  eagleswim
1 year ago

swimming bruce lee had to place every event under his black belt.

Reply to  eagleswim
1 year ago

He went 15:39 when he was 14. He would’ve been a legend in the event if he chose to focus on it at the international level.

Reply to  N P
1 year ago

Phelps was so good that he would have been a legend in any event he seriously pursued. Which is probably the most incredible thing about him. Gosh, I wish he had swum more 400 Free though. I absolutely believe he would still hold the WR.

Reply to  Reilly
1 year ago

That 400 free is the one I wish he’d really focused on at some point. I would have loved to have seen him make the necessary switches to his schedule to realistically incorporate a 400 free at world’s into his schedule.

Seeing where he truly would have sat against Thorpe at his peak (whether slower or faster) would have been an incredible thing.

Reply to  Reilly
1 year ago

He could’ve conceivably done it in 2007 or 2009… especially with those being the first years after Thorpe’s retirement

1 year ago

I posted this to reddit a couple years ago, I’ll see if I can find the thread and what reddit noticed

1 year ago

That is an ambitious freestyle split in a 200 IM. Faster than he’d come home in a 200 free, and that’s not even considering the fact that the split starts at the hand touch instead of the foot touch.

Reply to  Hmmmm
1 year ago

Not a very ambitious BR split though. Taking it from 100 to 95% on the br to get 105% in the free? I think Lochte went 33.0

tea rex
Reply to  Hmmmm
1 year ago

And a pretty slow fly goal time (25.5). Most people don’t take the 200 IM out 2 sec slower than the 100 fly – it’s a sprint race, especially for someone with Phelps’ base.
If I could rewrite history, Phelps would have dropped the 400 IM in 2012, and denied Sun Yang a gold medal in the 400 free.

Reply to  tea rex
1 year ago

I like the sentiment, but Phelps didn’t even medal in the 400 IM (showing the endurance wasn’t quite there) and his 200 Free was not on par with his past performances. On top of that – whatever you think about Sun Yang – 3:40.14 is a WICKED fast swim. I bet Phelps could’ve gone 3:43 in 2012, maybe as fast as 3:41 if he was full out training for it.

It’s also worth mentioning that Phelps’s loping stroke was not necessarily built for the 400. In order to challenge Sun, he’d have to have the base to go out wicked fast and then be able to fight off the pain at the end of the race.

1 year ago

I fully believe that had the scheduling been different, Phelps could have had the following results:
400 free: 3:40.5 gold
200 back: 1:52.6 gold
100 back: 52.4 gold
100 free: 47.3 silver

1 year ago

“1500 – DNS”
honestly same

GA Boy
1 year ago

Think about how good you are when you believe that you’re good enough to break a world record in the 200 back and you chose not to swim it!

GA Boy
Reply to  GA Boy
1 year ago

And 400 free

Colt Simonelli
Reply to  GA Boy
1 year ago

But, let’s be honest. There’s no way he would’ve broken 3:40. But he could have gotten gold.

Reply to  Colt Simonelli
1 year ago

I think he was certainly capable

Reply to  Colt Simonelli
1 year ago

I would agree except for the fact that he was a really good freestyler and was two seconds clear of anybody else in history in the 400 IM

1 year ago

Crazy how many events he could swim. Seeing him take a real shot at distance or backstroke at an Olympics would have been fun but that schedule would have been a nightmare and America had other swimmers to fill those gaps

Reply to  Swimdude
1 year ago

Makes you wish that even if he didn’t do it at the Olympics, he would pursue a backstroke event or 400free at Worlds. Other than 400free in ‘05, he never gave the 400 a serious shot.

About Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson originally hails from Clay Center, Kansas, where he began swimming at age six.  At age 14 he began swimming club year-round and later with his high school team, making state all four years.  He was fortunate enough to draw the attention of Kalamazoo College where he went on to …

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