Michael Phelps: Legacy of a legend

American swimmer Michael Phelps came into the Rio Olympics already the most successful Olympian of all time, holding 18 gold medals, so he had nothing to prove to the world, but maybe something to himself.

Winning four more golds in Brazil was his Olympic swansong. He’d come out of retirement after two years out of the pool, post-London 2012, and it was like no time had passed despite his clock ticking past the age of 30.

Before we proceed further, let’s have a quick recap of the records he extended or broke over the past week, during his fifth Olympic Games.

*22 golds – nearly double his nearest rivals. There are a bunch of athletes on nine golds, but no others in double figures.

*13 individual golds – a new record, passing the old one of 12, which was set in… 152 BC by Leonidas of Rhodes.

*Four-time winner of the 200m individual medley – Only the third American athlete, and first swimmer, to win the same event four times.

One black cloud hanging over him from London was his loss to South African wunderkid Chad le Clos in the 200m butterfly final, a shock defeat down to a split-second fingertip touch and a too-short final stroke. It’s one of only three silver medals to his name, veritable insults to his record.

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The hype surrounding their meet-up in Rio had every camera on them, and Le Clos lived up to the drama. He did a bit of shadow boxing in front of a seated Phelps ahead of their 200m fly semi-final, and #PhelpsFace was born. Unfortunately.

But one does not become the most decorated athlete in Olympic, or even sporting, history by being intimidated by schoolboy tactics. Le Clos, despite impersonating a second rate MMA fighter, finished behind Phelps in the semi.

And if you’re going to draw attention to yourself, best you make sure you win when it counts, and Le Clos did not. Phelps destroyed all comers in that final, stealing the gold back in emphatic fashion as Le Clos finished fourth.

Once that bit of drama passed, Phelps added the 200m IM to his records once again, winning by a body length, and easily reached the 100m fly final. There, he again came up against Le Clos and again they provided a plot twist. Neither won gold, but both won silver, finishing at exactly the same time to share the medal with a third swimmer, Laszlo Cseh.

Phelps’ influence could also be felt in the women’s competition, where Katie Ledecky made light work of anyone daring to enter the pool alongside her. A now-iconic photo emerged of a nine-year-old Ledecky meeting Phelps at an autograph signing, grinning with delight at meeting her hero.

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Ledecky could, in theory, rack up double figures in gold medals. She won four golds and a silver in Rio, which was her first Olympics. She’s only 19, and could have at least three more Games in her, barring injury or scandal. But can she emulate Phelps’ longevity?

He is truly astonishing in terms of stamina. To be so consistently good, so consistently fast, with so many young swimmers rising up the ranks, is rare. Especially as he was retired for two years and came back just to prove he could.

Ryan Lochte, for example, also made his Olympic debut in 2004, and has six gold medals to his name (excellent, to be sure). But he faded away in Rio and claimed a single gold, thanks in large part to Phelps, who anchored the 4x200m freestyle relay team to victory. Again. As he did in 2004, 2008, and 2012.

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Tokyo in 2020 will be a strange place without Phelps. He’ll be over 35 then, and while he hasn’t formally announced his retirement, it’s safe to assume he won’t be part of Team USA. But he leaves a daunting Olympic legacy, his head held high and sporting a rare smile, as he seemed to enjoy these Games for what they were: a career bonus.

Article by Lindsay du Plessis

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