For the First Time In History, Phelps Appears Content In Defeat


Throughout his career Michael Phelps has always had one singular mindset: win or lose. While many athletes would celebrate after a silver or bronze medal performance, Phelps didn’t see it that way. A loss was a loss, no sugarcoating it (a phrase his coach Bob Bowman often says).

Phelps fortunately hasn’t suffered very many losses in his international career. Coming into these Games, he had lost just four of the fifteen individual events he’s competed in at the Olympics.

One of those times was when he was just 15 in Sydney. Another won was when he willingly took on the two best freestylers in the world – Ian Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband – in the 200 freestyle in Athens. Though Phelps obviously wanted to win those races, it wasn’t a huge surprise that he didn’t.

It’s pretty clear what they did to him though. They motivated him to no end until he could eliminate the chance another loss would happen.

After the 5th place finish in 2000, Phelps went out and broke the 200 fly world record just six months later. After losing the 200 free in 2004, Phelps won back-to-back World Championship gold medals in the 200 free, including breaking Thorpe’s longstanding world record in his native Australia in 2007.

It wasn’t an Olympic lost, but when Ian Crocker beat him in the 100 fly at the 2003 World Championships, Phelps taped a picture of Crocker in his locker so he could remind himself every day what he was working towards.

At the 2004 Games, Phelps beat Crocker by four one-hundredths for gold.

When Phelps was at his physical peak and was 100% invested in the sport, he was unbeatable. Case in point: the 2007 World Championships and 2008 Olympics. Phelps went 10-for-10 between those two meets individually, not to mention 5-for-5 in relays (the prelim medley relay was DQed in Melbourne).

When that dedication started to wan, more losses came. Phelps was beat handily (although controversially due to the suits) in the 200 free in 2009 by Paul Biedermann, and twice in 2011 at the hands of Ryan Lochte. But his most notable loss came in 2012, as Chad Le Clos unseated his incumbency in the 200 fly. Phelps exited the pool lightning fast clearly enraged.

After those losses Phelps was not someone anyone would want to approach, but that’s not the case anymore.

After losing the first 100 butterfly of his Olympic career, Phelps promptly showed up for an interview with NBC with a smile on his face.

“Obviously I always want to be faster and I always want to be on the top of the medal podium,” Phelps said. “But that’s what I could do today”.

There was certainly some disappointment in his voice, and how could there not be, but his post-race demeanor was much different than it would have been in the past.

He would later go onto comment about his reaction after the race: “Well I saw second next to my name and then I looked up again and then I looked over at Laszlo and Chad like, huh, we all tied for second, that’s kind of cool.” 

He also spoke to the significance of finishing his individual career with a three-way tie for silver with two of his biggest rivals throughout his career:“It’s wild. Chad and I have had some races over the last four years and Laszlo and I – I can’t even remember when our first race was. Probably as long as Ryan and I. So kind of special and a decent way to finish my last race. I can’t complain too much.”

Four years ago a silver medal for Phelps had him agitated and upset, and that festered with him throughout his brief retirement. Did the anger towards that loss fuel his comeback to the sport? There’s no doubt it had something to do with it. Did it give him the will to go and reclaim the 200 fly on Tuesday night in one of the most thrilling races of the Games? Absolutely. But while the motivation was useful, the anger was not.

But that anger is visibly gone, and Phelps is much more content even if it means he isn’t at the top of the podium. What has fuelled this drastic change?

Phelps is now in a good place in his life. Between 2009 and 2012, he was swimming just to get it over with. In 2013 and 2014, Phelps had lost his identity without the sport. Once his whole DUI and rehab situation came and got resolved, Phelps transformed.

He’s a different person now, and stated prior to the Games he would be fine with any outcome as long as he put his best effort forward. He now knows that any win or loss doesn’t define who he is, and that is what has helped him become content even in the agony of defeat.


  • American Maya Dirado won a surprise gold medal in the 200 backstroke, defeating the favored Hungarian Katinka Hosszu by six one-hundredths of a second. That gives Dirado her fourth medal of the Olympics, joining Hosszu and Penny Oleksiak as the only swimmers with four medals here. Only Phelps and Katie Ledecky have more (5).
  • Canada’s Hilary Caldwell also won a bronze in the 200 back, giving the Canadian women their sixth medal of the swimming competition.
  • Katie Ledecky won her second consecutive 800 free title in a new world record of 8:04.79, tying her with Phelps with her fourth gold of the meet. Ledecky won by over eleven seconds.
  • 16 years after winning gold in Sydney, Anthony Ervin claimed gold in the men’s 50 free at the age of 35, making him the oldest Olympic swimming gold medalist in history. Nathan Adrian won bronze.
  • 100 free gold medalist Simone Manuel advanced to the women’s 50 free final tomorrow night after clocking 24.44 in the semi-finals to qualify 6th overall.
  • Kylie Masse broke her own Canadian record leading off the women’s medley relay this morning, and the relay broke the national record too. They qualified 2nd for the final behind their fellow North Americans the United States.
  • Vanessa Garcia became the first Puerto Rican woman under 25 seconds in the 50 free, breaking the national record in 24.94.
  • Rebecca Heyliger broke the Bermudian record in the 50 free, clocking 26.54.
















The U.S. won three more golds tonight to push their count to 14, along with a silver and a bronze which gives them 29 total medals with one day to go.

Canada won another bronze, giving them six medals.




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Yes. Thanks for writing this article, James. I think we all remember Phelps’s days of angry cap-throwing.


What angry cap throwing?


Hey, but he threw it way better than Sun Yang.

Swim Fan

Two takeaways: When I saw him watch Maya Dilrado win the 200 Back he fist pumped and then looked relaxed and content. For some reason I felt that for Phelps, that did not bode well for getting him primed and amped up for the next race, 100 fly finals. Phelps does his best when he is angry, agitated, seeks retribution and needs to settle a score. That feel good story of Maya’s gold medal race is not what the doc ordered for patient Phelps. As a fan, even I lost my “edge” of excitement for Phelps race because I was feeling the glow of contentment over Maya’s race. Second thing: When Phelps came in second and missed the chance to… Read more »


No way. He’s done.


200 IM, not 100 fly. He wont make 100 fly. He’s been going 51 low when it counts for years now, training or not. 200 IM is perfect for him to show his mastery, and i could see him going 1:55s for 8-12 more years if he wanted


He went 50.45 at nationals last year.

Swim Fan

Good point and I agree with it. Makes sense. The only thing is that for some reason I think the 100 fly holds a more special meaning for Michael than does the 200 IM. I always got the feeling that he did the 200 IM because “it was there” but his real love is really the fly. He seems to identify more with the fly than he does the IM. I also feel that he thinks about himself as a flyer rather than an IMer. But your point is well taken and I fully agree that if he picks one even then it should be the 200 IM. However, he is a sort of “retribution” type motivated person and I… Read more »


200 fly is his favorite I think. But he would truly be too old at age 35. When swimmers peak at 23-25. But 4×100 free relay and 200 IM? Heck YEH.


It would be amazing to see him swim just the 100 fly (or 200IM) in Tokyo! On the other hand, I think he _is_ at peace now. Seeing that the level of the 100 fly (or swimming in general, even) in the world still not catching up to the great battles between him and Ian Crocker was surely part of what motivated him to to return from retirement and take the event back. But with Schooling emerging, I think world 100 fly is finally moving on, and Phelps is at peace with that. In the 200 fly, Sakai and Kenderesi have emerged. In the IM, though this has been a slower year overall, there’s Hagino. The swimming world is finally… Read more »


Phelps can be in Tokyo..
But honestly just as a relay only swimmer for 4×100 free
The Andrews , Kalisz and co. Will take the torch in rest of the events..


1:56 can qualify for 2020 probably


He’s been relaxed and content since he left rehab and that hasn’t seem to have affected him negatively. He won’t be in Tokyo. He has other priorities now. He’s not Ryan Lochte.

Attila the Hunt

He’s finally at peace with himself.

About James Sutherland

James Sutherland

James swam five years at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, specializing in the 200 free, back and IM. He finished up his collegiate swimming career in 2018, graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics. In 2019 he completed his graduate degree in sports journalism. Prior to going to Laurentian, James swam …

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