A “Coach’s Eye” On Michael Phelps’ Comeback

by Amanda Smith 17

April 23rd, 2014 News, Pro Swim Series

Emilie Hoeper, Mason Manta Rays Swim Coach, contributed to this report.

We can all agree that Michael Phelps is one, if not the, greatest swimmer of all time. And it goes without question that the entire swimming community is beyond excitement for his comeback to begin at Mesa on Thursday.

But one of the more interesting questions that I am sure most of you are asking is, what level of THE Michael Phelps will we see down in Mesa? His training has been under the radar, so we will see where he is at once he puts on his racing suit since London 2012.

We wanted to take a statistical, “coaching eye” standing point to analyze Phelps. There are many layers to the onion that is Phelps top physical form; for example, with Beijing 2008 being at the core, and 2011 Shanghai or 2010 Pan Pacs in the middle, let’s say. Between me and my co worker, Emilie Hoeper, we went to videos to break down Phelps by the numbers. We know Phelps is swimming the 50 and 100 freestyle and 100 butterfly at Mesa, so we just looked at his 100 butterfly and 100 freestyle races for some numbers.

Let’s go over what we looked at:
RT = Reaction time off the blocks
Stroke Count = Butterfly – One stroke; Freestyle – One cycle (two strokes)
*Average Stroke Rate = Time it takes to complete one stroke — then we took that total off all the strokes and divided it by the stroke count of that lap
Splits = 50 times within the race
Final Time = Overall finishing time

100 Butterfly Shanghai Beijing
RT 0.68 0.71
Stroke Count – 1st 50 16 16
Stroke Count – 2nd 50 18 19
Average Stroke Rate – 1st 50 1.2/stroke 1.2/stroke
Average Stroke Rate – 2nd 50 1.2/stroke 1.15/stroke
Splits 23.94/26.77 24.04/26.54
Final Time 50.71 50.58
100 Freestyle Shanghai Beijing
RT 0.73 0.75
Stroke Count – 1st 50 14 13.5
Stroke Count – 2nd 50 15 15
Average Stroke Rate – 1st 50 1.3/cycle 1.3/cycle
Average Stroke Rate – 2nd 50 1.25/cycle 1.2/cycle
Splits 23.25/24.83 23.32/24.20
Final Time 48.08 47.51

There was an interview Emilie and I had seen from Bob Bowman speaking about stroke count with Michael Phelps. It probably is the one core piece that Bowman beats in Phelps head. That is why he was able to swim the 200 butterfly pretty much blind in 2008 and come out with a win. And this piece is backed up statistically. Phelps stroke count, freestyle or butterfly, is on point, regardless of the level of shape that he may be in.

Also note, that 19th stroke in Beijing was the winning-by-.01 stroke over Milorad Cavic.

So stroke count doesn’t seem to be the big difference maker with Phelps. Perhaps, it is a power per stroke element. There is a very slight difference in his stroke rate in Beijing to Shanghai, which could be the difference maker in the few tenths difference between the two races. In Beijing his rate was just about .05 faster per cycle or stroke on the back half of his sprints. Keeping that his stroke number was consistent, he much be accelerating the water underneath him faster and more efficiently than in Shanghai, perhaps.

What I am interested to see in Mesa is mainly his stroke count. Can Phelps be at that “magical” number of 16 down/18 back in the butterfly and 14 down/15 back in the freestyle after some time away from the pool. He has so much swimming in his tool box, I bet he will be able to pick up right where he left off in that respect. Though, I bet his stroke rate will be much slower down in Mesa.

If Phelps opts for the 50 butterfly instead of the 50 free, I bet well see about 16 strokes in that lap, but with a higher rate like in his second 50 in his 100.

The film we looked at didn’t give us much a chance to look at his underwater counts. But we will be looking at this weekend as well. Phelps is known for going further than another else, easily 12.5 meters off turning walls.

Outside of the numbers we can look at, Phelps is just a rare specimen even technically. His butterfly is the epitome of what you try to teach your swimmers. You look for your swimmers to grab the water out far in front of their shoulders and hold and accelerate the water all the way straight back. His acceleration plus the kick exiting into the recovery is unmatched, as when you watch Phelps in the recover piece of his butterfly looks effortless; his face even looks relaxed.

Then on his freestyle, Phelps does have a very notable “gallop”. He only breathes to his right, but he digs his left arm so deeply into the catch it presses him up and out producing that gallop motion. He used to breathe every stroke, and I don’t see that changing either in Mesa this weekend.

Then again, these are all numbers we can use to take a closer look at Michael Phelps. He is very consistent, from the meets his wins 8 gold medals at, to the meets where he considered a bit “off his game”. But even when he’s not in the 8 gold medal form, statistically Phelps is on point.

*Editor Note: Stroke Rate could possibly be a bit off; we did our best with YouTube videos on our computer and projected onto TVs to get the most accurate data


In This Story

Leave a Reply

5 Comment threads
12 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
8 Comment authors
newest oldest most voted
bobo gigi

Very interesting.
I thought first the article was written by one of the swimswam contributors from Stanford like Carly Geer or Morgan Priestley because there are many numbers and statistics. An article for nerds. 🙂

To come back to the comeback, I don’t expect anything great in Mesa from MP so I can’t be disappointed.
Please, Michael, don’t drown. Stay alive.
Seriously, if he has fun, that’s the most important thing.
And if he sees he can still swim fast, he will continue until Rio and will have 2 full years to be ready.

“To come back to the comeback.” I love how good your English has gotten bobo. That’s actually pretty clever.

Amanda Smith is currently working on her Masters’ Degree at USC…and once told me that if coaching didn’t work out, she’d love to teach calculus. So she’s got a little bit of that math bug in her too.

bobo gigi

Haha. Thanks.
I just tried to make a play on words. 🙂


Bobo’s getting funnier! And it’s OK if you stop expecting greatness from The GOAT, Bobo, I haven’t yet and as a result I may be disappointed sometimes in the next two years, but unless he’s changed, he is in large part externally motivated, and mentally everyone’s expectations provide fuel for him either way, whether they doubt him or not, though especially when they doubt him, I think. I have a question for Amanda, I think most of us have noticed Phelp’s obvious freestyle gallop, but I don’t remember reading much discussion about it before. As a coach, would you attempt to correct that at this stage, or leave well enough alone? I am naturally left arm dominant and naturally breathe… Read more »

bobo gigi

I don’t stop expecting greatness from the GOAT!
I don’t expect anything great IN MESA!!!!
It’s different!


Yes it is. I stand corrected, Bobo, and glad to hear you’re on board with me through Rio. I know you like to make event and time predictions in the short run, not sure about the long run have you made any for Rio yet? (Barring injury, illness, severe burn-out, reasons he couldn’t make it to Rio)

bobo gigi

For Rio? Now? Are we sure he will continue until Rio? I have no idea. Mesa will be of course a first test. If he swims decently (50 low in the 100 free and 53 low in the 100 fly), he will gain much confidence and his opponents fromm all over the world will start to worry a lot! 🙂 If he still has fun with swimming, it’s the most important thing. If you ask me today some crazy predictions, I answer you I see him in the 100 fly, in the 4X100 free relay and in the 4X100 medley relay. 100 free? Perhaps in individual but I doubt. Of course for the relay. 200 free? No way in individual.… Read more »


Thanks Bobo; my Mesa predictions are only slightly more optimistic than your hopes, just under 50/53. My Rio predictions are roughly the same as yours, except that I think that he would only skip the 2IM if he risked injury and/or it jeopardized chances for a 100 fly 4-peat. With Dwyer (and ? Kalisz) to train against, he can go for it in practice and see how that turns out over time. I agree with you that he will probably shoot for a 4×200 relay slot because he loves the relays, but it will depend on his competition and his fitness for it (see 2IM predictions above) I think barring injury/illness and multiple breakouts by other swimmers, he could still… Read more »

What about underwaters?

this is interesting but means almost nothing unless you take the distance/time of the underwaters into account… This will significantly effect the stroke rate/and any interpretations made from that

The Beach

An issue that Phelps will have to deal with in his comeback that I have not heard mentioned is the improvement and depth of swimming since Phelps went his best times in 2008-2009. Most people seem to agree that MP will not be better than he was back then. The U.S. and world rankings (top 8, 16, etc.) of most events have improved dramatically which will make Michael’s task much tougher. I beleive that he CAN get better. Some swimmers have gotten better at his age. But they weren’t world record holders at 15. For him to duplicate the drive and intensity that he had back in 2004-2009, against a tougher field will be almost impossible. He obviously has

About Amanda Smith

Amanda Smith is a former swimmer at both Indiana and USC, where she earned a total of nine All-American honors at the NCAA Championships. Smith, a middle-distance specialist as a swimmer, was also 3-time USC School Record holder, a 2012 NCAA Woman of the Year nominee, and an Olympic Trials …

Read More »

Want to take your swimfandom to the next level?

Subscribe to SwimSwam Magazine!