It’s been 20 years and one day — March 30, 2001 — since Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete of all-time, first entered swimming’s history books.
At the U.S. National Championships in Austin, Phelps broke his first world record at just 15 years of age, clocking 1:54.92 in the 200 butterfly to erase the mark of 1:55.18 set by fellow American Tom Malchow at the 2000 Olympic Trials.
Coming off of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where Phelps finished fifth in 1:56.50, he and coach Bob Bowman were intent on making a statement at those Nationals in Austin, which served as a qualifier for the 2001 World Championships.
This included Bowman writing “WR Austin” on almost every note he left Phelps following the 2000 Games, Phelps explained in his book, Beneath The Surface, with author Brian Cazeneuve.
“I hadn’t won a medal (in Sydney) and that drove me for the next six months,” Phelps writes in the book. “I was grabbing for a goal. I needed a goal the way a car needs fuel. I desperately wanted to break a world record to make a statement that I had arrived, to validate the work we’d put in.”
Before the race, Bowman told Phelps to stay with Malchow for the first 100 or 150, “then kill it coming home and you’ll have a great shot.”
Though Malchow got out very fast, that’s essentially how the race unfolded.
Split Comparison, 2001 U.S. Nationals
|55.61 (29.14)||55.04 (29.35)|
|1:25.04 (29.43)||1:24.60 (29.56)|
|1:54.92 (29.88)||1:55.46 (30.86)|
“I made a surge later than Bob had wanted, trailing Tom by almost a bodylength at the third wall, catching him with 25 meters left, then hitting the overdrive button and hoping for a time that would be faster than the 1:55.18 Tom had swum in Charlotte in 2000 to set the world record,” Phelps continues in Beneath The Surface.
“I looked up and saw 1:54.92 and didn’t quite believe it at first. For a split second I just floated, squinting through my goggles to make sure I saw the numbers right. Then I went spazo.”
Phelps’ swim made him the youngest swimmer ever to hold a world record, breaking the standard set by Ian Thorpe, who taken the 200 free mark in 1999 at 16 years, 10 months.
Update: while the entire swimming community believed Phelps to be the youngest WR holder, Australia’s Stephen Holland was actually even younger, lowering the men’s 1500 freestyle mark at 15 years, two months. When Phelps broke the record in Austin, he was 15 years, nine months to the day.
“It was the first swim that really meant something,” Phelps said.
200 Fly Legacy
That record didn’t hold up for long, as less than four months later at the World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, Phelps swam a time of 1:54.58 in the 200 fly final to win his first of what would be 26 long course world titles.
Phelps went on to break the record seven more times, win three Olympic gold medals in the event (and one silver), and won it every time he contested it at the World Championships (four more times: 2003, 2007, 2009, 2011).
Phelps held the 200 fly world record for more than 18 years, with his personal best time of 1:51.51 — set in 2009 — holding up for a decade until Hungarian Kristof Milak took it down in July of 2019, putting up a mind-boggling 1:50.73.
During his comeback in 2015, Phelps spoke about how the event hadn’t any gotten faster in recent years. That statement was true at the time — no one broke 1:54 from the 2012 Olympics until the 2015 World Championships — something Phelps did in 2003.
But after three years of 1:53 being enough to win, including Phelps’ 2016 Olympic triumph, Milak blew everything wide open in 2019. And he seems intent on continuing to carry the event to new heights this summer, having already been 1:51.40 early in the year.
It’s unfair to compare any swimmer to Phelps. But in this specific event, Milak looks to be taking it to the next level, just as Phelps did over his 15 years at the top.
And it all started in Austin.