Passing the Torch

When Michael Phelps was a kid, his dream was to accomplish something that nobody else had ever done before. 28 Olympic medals later, it’s safe to say, he not only achieved that goal, but went way beyond it in a way nobody could have foreseen when he competed in his first Olympic games in 2000.

There’s no need to convince anyone of the magnitude of Phelps’ swimming accomplishments because he has positioned himself in a class far ahead of any swimmer in history. If it wasn’t already evident after the 2012 London Olympics, this year’s Rio games put to rest any doubt that Phelps is the greatest swimmer of all-time and the greatest Olympian of all-time. It’s part of why Phelps decided to come out of retirement to participate in Rio de Janeiro – so that he could leave the sport without any doubt or regrets.

Taking Michael Phelps’ incredible resume a step further, I would argue that he is not only the greatest Olympian, but the best and most dominant athlete who ever lived. Here’s a quick overview of just how dominant he has been. His record of 28 Olympic medals is ten more than any other Olympic athlete. Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina is second with 18. Of Phelps’ 28 medals, 23 of them are gold, while no other Olympian has more than nine. The most incredible stat of all may be this one – if Michael Phelps were his own country, he would have the third most swimming gold medals of any nation in the world. Only the rest of the United States and Australia have won more.

Plenty of athletes have been nearly unbeatable in their respective sports for periods of time, but what sets Phelps’ legacy apart is his longevity and sustained excellence. Age 31 is old for a swimmer, and while a number of swimmers are still able to compete at a high level into their 30s, to still be the best in the world at that age is quite unprecedented. In Rio, Phelps became the oldest swimmer to win gold in an any individual event (although fellow American Anthony Ervin took this record from him shortly after at age 35). Many swimmers stop swimming competitively in their 20s, and although Phelps says he’s retiring, it’s easy to think he could take home a few more medals in the 2020 Tokyo games if he really wanted to.

If this is it for Phelps, he has certainly left his mark on the next generation of swimmers. The majority of his teammates and competitors are people who are young enough that they grew up idolizing him. Among this group is 19 year-old phenom Katie Ledecky.

Like Phelps, Ledecky resides in Maryland, and also began her Olympic career as a 15 year old, when she won a gold medal in the women’s 800-meter freestyle in London. By adding four more golds and one silver to her resume in Rio, Ledecky is now well on track to take over Phelps’ crown as the most dominant swimmer in the world as she sets her sights on Tokyo in 2020. After her performance in this year’s games, there are now only seven swimmers in history who have won more total gold medals than Ledecky. Remember, she’s only 19.

It wasn’t just talent that got Ledecky to this point. It’s was her drive and determination from a young age that made her one of the best athletes in the world. As for the secret to her success, she says, “The secret is there is no secret. I’m enjoying what I’m doing and it’s just putting in the work.” When she broke her arm in the fourth grade playing basketball, she took off her cast and put a bag over her arm instead so that she could continue swimming.

What’s also remarkable about Ledecky is not only the fact that she’s never lost an individual race in a major international tournament in her life, but her ability to excel at every race length and the margin of victory by which she wins by.

So as USA Swimming bids farewell to one legendary Olympic champion in 2016, the nation also got to witness the breakthrough of another champion creating her own legacy. We can only assume she will be giving swimming fans plenty to look forward to for many years to come.


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