The Peacock documentary Michael Phelps: Medals, Memories & More is now online, offering viewers more than three hours of content and commentary about Phelps’ Olympic career. The three-part docuseries is one you’ll have to watch for yourself, but we’ve selected some of the most interesting quotes and analyses from Phelps and commentators Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines.
Episode 1: Greatness Begins
Watching Phelps’ first Olympic final, the 200 butterfly at the Sydney 2000 Games, Phelps states that his nerves motivated him to wish competitor and compatriot Tom Malchow good luck behind the blocks. While Malchow won the race, Phelps placed 5th, leaving Australia with nothing more than memories and a certificate saying he competed in the Olympic final. The lack of a medal did not sit well with him.
While the 2004 Athens Games kicked off with Phelps winning the 400 IM in World Record time, the following two races, the 4 x 100 freestyle relay and the 200 freestyle, ended Phelps’ quest for 8 gold medals and then 7 golds, respectively. Nonetheless, Rowdy expresses pride in Phelps’ efforts. Though Phelps was bested by Pieter van den Hoogenband and Ian Thorpe in the 200 free, dubbed the “race of the century” by Rowdy, he would go on to get the better of van den Hoogenband at the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne, where he also took down Thorpe’s World Record.
Interestingly, Phelps credits Thorpe with the early revitalization of underwater dolphin kicking in races, though clarifies that he and Bowman took it to the next level. This kick is what helped propel Phelps to the 200 freestyle World Record in 2007 and again at the Beijing 2008 Olympics. While Phelps’ kick is a thing of wonder to viewers, his competitors were not as fond of it.
“I’m never gonna swim the 200 free again, because I don’t want to watch your underwater,” said Phelps, quoting van den Hoogenband following the 200 freestyle final at the 2007 Melbourne World Championships, relegating van den Hoogenband to silver.
Before the analysis of the 4 x 200 freestyle relay, the documentary reminds viewers of Klete Keller‘s involvement in the January 6th Capitol Riots in Washington, D.C. and current indictment, also informing us that this special was filmed a day earlier, on January 5th. Keller swam the anchor leg of the 4 x 200 in Athens, holding off Australia’s Thorpe for the win. Phelps credits Keller’s pacing versus Thorpe’s more aggressive opening 50 as the vital strategy that helped Team USA win gold.
Watching Phelps’s backstroke in the 200 IM final in Athens, Rowdy says that “there’s no doubt in my mind you would have won the 200 back–with all due respect to Aaron,” meaning he believes Phelps also could have won the 200 backstroke over teammate and World Record holder Aaron Peirsol. “This (Athens 2004) probably would have been the only time to actually try it,” says Phelps, because “you were so good in the 200 IM,” finishes Rowdy. “And this one was one that we had a pretty good idea we were gonna win,” Phelps adds.
Though Phelps never took on the 200 backstroke/200 IM double at the Olympics, he did qualify for the 2004 US team in the 200 back, but opted not to swim it. Teammate Ryan Lochte, the 2004 silver medalist in the 200 IM, did take on the backstroke/IM double at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, winning a medal in every single race, though winning only the 200 back in Beijing.
In the 100 butterfly final, Phelps got to the wall just 0.04 ahead of teammate and World Record holder Ian Crocker, utilizing a “magical touch” as called by Dan Hicks on the broadcast. NCAA swimming fans should watch the bottom of the screen in lane 8 where they will see Croatia’s Duje Draganja wearing a Cal Bears swim cap instead of one displaying a Croatian flag.
Episode 2: Eight Golden Races
Speaking about the work he had put in between Athens and Beijing and how comfortable he felt in butterfly especially, Phelps remarks “I’d pushed 51 and change in a 100 fly in practice,” which gave him the confidence to “float” his first 100 fly of the 400 IM.
Phelps makes an interesting observation when he says “I’ve always felt backstroke long course was the hardest stroke because it’s so leg-driven.” Given that his weakest stroke was always breaststroke
“Honestly, I didn’t feel that tired afterwards.”
It’s also interesting to hear that President George Bush was down on the pool deck with Team USA a time or two during the Beijing Olympics.
Had Phelps focused solely on the 400 IM, he believes he could have broken the 4-minute in the race. “Thinking back, you know, being removed now from the sport, it’s 100 percent, it was possible, to break 4 minutes, had I just strictly focused on that, I truly believe that it was a possibility,” and that “And because I think at that time when I first heard it, and the World Record at the time was a 4:05, 4:06, and I was like ‘who the hell is going to break 4 minutes?’ Right? That’s unheard of. But when you start crunching the numbers it’s possible.”
Breaking 4 minutes in the 400 IM seems like a Herculean task, even today, 13 years removed from Phelps’ World Record performance. Perhaps we’ll crunch the numbers on that in another article. In any case, Phelps’ 400 IM in Beijing was legendary, though it was easily topped by the spectacle that was Jason Lezak’s come-from-behind surge in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay to run down Alain Bernard and the French team, splitting a 46.06 to win by 0.08.
Speaking on Lezak’s incredible swim, Phelps said “When I say shake ‘n’ bake like Ricky Bobby, that’s literally what he did… he literally just went right around him (Bernard) like he was standing still. And when you see something like that, for me, it shows you how important the small things are, because in the biggest moment, the most pressure situation, those are going to come out.”
If you’ve ever wondered what Phelps considered his greatest Olympic swim, it was the 200 freestyle final in Beijing. “This race defines perfection for me in any of the races I’ve ever swum,” Phelps says about his 1:42.96 200 freestyle in Beijing.
Remarking on his 200 butterfly win and World Record, Phelps says “I honestly thought I could have gone like 1:50 and change, you know, like, that’s what I was thinking, I could go a 1:51-low, 1:50-point-high,” though Phelps ended up hitting the wall in 1:52.03, edging runner-up Laszlo Cseh of Hungary who finished in 1:52.70. “And this race, in my opinion, should never have been this close, I was swimming too well in this stroke and yeah, I mean, I should have been a second faster,” said Phelps.
Olympic swimmers fatigue just like the rest of us, and that’s what Phelps says happened to Sebia’s Milorad Cavic in the final of the 100 butterfly in Beijing. “That’s the definition of a piano on your back,” says Phelps, watching Cavic as he and Phelps roar into the wall of the final of the men’s 100 fly in Beijing. “I know my competitors better than they know themselves,” says Phelps, which gave him the confidence to swim the race the way he knew he needed to in order to win.
After the race, Crocker told Phelps he must have a guardian angel. Phelps also admits that he has a picture of him and Cavic reaching for the wall in his office. He also lets slip that he’s working on a book, which we will be eager to read.
Episode 3: London to Lasting Legacy
Phelps began his London Olympics with a 4th-place finish in the 400 IM in 4:09.28, just behind bronze medalist Kosuke Hagino of Japan who touched in 4:08.94. Though he did not expect to beat teammate Ryan Lochte, who won gold in 4:05.18, he thought he could win the silver medal. In prelims, Phelps swam a 4:13.33 to place 8th and advance to the final where he would swim in lane 8. Phelps says he wished he would have been just a little bit slower so that he didn’t have to swim it again in finals, though he also comments that getting 4th was probably a good thing for him.
Phelps earned a silver medal in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay, though Team USA was toppled by the French, whom they had beaten in legendary fashion in 2008. Then came the 200 butterfly where Phelps was again beaten, this time by a young South African named Chad le Clos. While Phelps’s race was not perfect, featuring three botched turns and a long finish, le Clos did swim extremely well in his own right, beating Phelps 1:52.96 to 1:53.01. Still, Phelps says that if he had hit the first turn better he would have won the race.
Phelps was happy to become the first man in history to win the same individual event three times at the Olympics, first with a victory in the 200 IM and then in the 100 fly. The 2016 Rio Olympics gave him the opportunity to expand his immense CV even further.
Leading into the analysis of the races in Rio, we learn from Hicks and Gaines that a certain Caeleb Dressel does a spot-on impersonation of Rowdy, which we are going to have to see for ourselves to verify.
Having been honored as the flagbearer for Team USA, Phelps didn’t race until the final of the 4 x 100 freestyle relay where Team USA got the better of France to win the gold medal. Phelps’ second race in Rio was the 200 fly, the semifinals for which were highlighted by le Clos’ shadow boxing in the ready room, an antic Phelps thought was strange and a poor use of energy. Phelps won the 200 fly by a razor-thin 0.04 over Japan’s Masato Sakai and defeating 2012 champion le Clos, who placed 4th.
Phelps was completely dominant in the 200 IM, winning in 1:54.66, 2 seconds ahead of runner-up Hagino of Japan. As Phelps pulled away on the freestyle, he states that he thought he was going to break Lochte’s 2011 World Record, though he missed it by 0.66.
The 100 butterfly did not go the way Phelps wanted, though he came away with a silver medal, tied with long-time rivals Cseh and le Clos.
Of course, Phelps finished the 2016 Games with a gold medal in the 4 x 100 medley relay. He is adamant that he won’t be making a comeback for the fast-approaching Tokyo Olympics, nor will he return for the 2024 Paris Games. LA 2028, however, appeals to Phelps since he’s always wanted to race on home soil, though fans shouldn’t get their hopes up.