Phelps’ legacy on the line in London

Four years ago in Beijing, Michael Phelps gave us one heck of a memorable swim meet. It was electrifying. The images of such athletic dominance must surely remain vivid in the minds of sport fans. But there is a price to be paid for greatness. The attention of worldwide media brought scrutiny on a young man’s life. Fame, legend and millions of endorsements, all paid in exchange for relinquished privacy and judgment of action.

We all sighed when a photo was leaked of Phelps’ apparent enjoyment of a certain plant. Some sponsors even re-coiled.

Michael was elevated to superhuman, our worldwide Olympic champion, granted access to a level of stardom shared by ‘A’ list artists or movie stars. He even crossed over once or twice, hosting SNL and literally crossing a road with a cameo on ‘Entourage’.

Deserved spoils for a young man who by age 23 had spent almost his entire life toiling in a pool. Every stroke and set, adding up to Olympic history.

Shift the scene to London, England and the 2012 Olympics. It is his fourth and last Games. An expansive body of work over 12 years, a relatively short career compared to most professional sports. It feels like yesterday we were imagining what greatness might come for a lanky 15 year-old, swimming to his first world record in 200 Butterfly. On day 3, Phelps will swim the heats of his last Olympic 200 Fly, an event he has dominated since 2000. He will be challenged by Takeshi Matsuda of Japan and Nick D’Arcy of Australia. We expect him to win. We have always expected him to win. This is the true price of greatness as both the athlete and fan begin to expect brilliance. All of the time.

Beijing must have been extreme pressure for Phelps. But speaking for expectations, what does the Olympian who has achieved almost everything want in his final Games? Now that he has set the standard of perfection, he is measured against himself. And despite an enormous Olympic medal total, his legacy still waits to be sealed.

Already underway, London retains more pressure for Phelps that one might imagine. Another price of perfection is that now we wait to see how the story will end. On day 1, Phelps failed to make the podium. The first time he has missed a medal since his first Olympics. This was referred to as a disappointment. Bearing in mind he hasn’t focused on the event since Beijing, it was still a surprise to see Phelps so far behind the winner. It was arguably more shocking that he barely qualified for finals in the first place. Another truth is that Olympic swimming is just plain hard, and not even Phelps can avoid that.

Perhaps it is a horrible reality, but if Phelps’ final chapter is riddled with these apparent disappointments, his swimming legacy could carry the burden of a final fall from grace. This is not to say that fall is imminent, Phelps publicly commented he will put the 400 IM neatly in his rearview. But for someone who no doubt has an incredible competitive drive, he must be feeling shades of Beijing pressure.

For all that has been said about the Lochte-Phelps match ups, or any of Michael’s other opponents, one can’t help cheering a little for him. In Beijing we just stood and marveled . But now it seems that he might need a little push, to close out an illustrious run with a just a little more magic. As swimming fans, you might say we owe him that for the memories he has delivered. Whatever happens in London, to most, Michael Phelps has constructed an Olympic legacy that will always be celebrated and revered. To some, a less than exceptional final chapter will mar his greatness. In either case, Michael answers only to himself, and has 7 more days to prove whatever is left to be proven.

Do you believe Michael has something to prove in London? Tell me: @CallumNg

Callum Ng
 is a SwimSwam contributor, story-teller and sport lover.

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10 years ago

This lochte vs Phelps crap is really getting old. Both guys are the best swimmers in the world , they are great friends and teamates. Thanks to both for always padding our medal total.

cynthia curran
10 years ago

Michael peak in the Im’s and the 200 meter freestyle at age 23 and the 100 meter and 200 meter flys at age 24. Granted, he is now using a different type suit but he peak earlier since he put the yardage in more in that earlier period. And Michael was a world class swimmer similar in age to most female swimmers than males swimmers. 15 years old and a world record at 15 is more what a female swimmer does than a male swimmer since males developed later on the sport.

Reply to  cynthia curran
10 years ago

So exactly how do you explain his personal best in the 200IM last year?

Philip Johnson
10 years ago

Yeah, lets blame Lochte, not Agnel who swam a 46 split.

Reply to  Philip Johnson
10 years ago

Agnel had an amazing swim. But ppl stop kissing Lochtes’ ass, he was the weakest link. Lochte and Cullen should BOTH have swam much faster.

Its the Olympics, where was that great racer that he proclaims to be? When the pressure was on he didn’t event attempt to fight back. He let Agnel reel him in and destroy him. If he went out with a fight then so be it, but the fact is he was too slow.

Philip Johnson
10 years ago

It doesn’t matter if he finished last in every event, his legacy is already set.

Reply to  Philip Johnson
10 years ago

couldn’t have said it better

Reply to  Philip Johnson
10 years ago


10 years ago

Phelps legacy certainly isn’t on the line, although every fan of his would love to see him walking away with a few more golds. I only wish he was getting more love and support from swimming community. They should praise him for everything he’s done to make swimming this popular, creating opportunities for young swimmers.

Reply to  Liliana
10 years ago

People (media especially) just don’t understand the degree of difficulty it must be for Phelps to have swam these last 4 years having nowhere to go (not even up) and very little he left unaccomplished

10 years ago

Nothing against Lochte, who is amazing in his own right, but he is not the 2nd coming of Michael Phelps. What happened last night in the 400 FR serves to illustrate how amazing Phelps’ 2008 performance was. With essentially the same order of events he won the 400 IM in WR time, then lead-off the 400 FR with an American record. Lochte won the 400 IM without breaking the WR, then got the slowest split on the US team while they won silver. My point is that his legacy was assured by his 2008 performance. I selfishly hope he wins more events in London just so I can have the pleasure of seeing the greatest of all time swim one… Read more »

10 years ago

FGS stop & smell the roses.

You are obsessing & coming off as a bitter twisted neurotic.

10 years ago

None of these swimmers legacy are on the line. Winning A GOLD MEDAL at the olympic is betond amazing, left alone 2,3,4,5 or 8. These two swimmers have opened a wide window for the sport of swimming. I am not American, but I would like give my appreciation to Michael phelps and Ryan lochte for what their done for our sport. No matter what happen in this Olympics, these two swimmers are definitely the greatest swimmers in our life time.

jean michel
Reply to  ThanksP&L
10 years ago

totally well said bro ………….those 2 guys are examples of commitment > nothing can be takenfrom them

About Callum Ng

Callum Ng is a Canadian story-teller, entrepreneur and sport leader. Callum has traveled across the world as a participant and promoter of recent sport events such as the IOC's WCSE 2011 and the Youth Olympic Games. As a former swimmer, Callum brings a unique angle to swimming coverage, capturing both …

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