How about this for a study of contrasts: in the icy blue backdrop of the swimming arena at Beijing National Aquatics Center — better known as the Water Cube — Michael Phelps was on fire.
In what is arguably the biggest success story of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the American stole the limelight with his stunning performances and managed to do what many thought would be impossible at first.
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Phelps underlined his position as one of the greatest Olympians by winning a record eight gold medals, becoming the first individual to do so at a single event. In the process, he also surpassed compatriot Mark Spitz’s 36-year-old record at the 1972 Munich Games.
Not just that, Phelps also bettered the world record in seven of the eight events he competed in Beijing, improving four records which were previously held by him.
At present, Phelps still holds the record for winning the most Olympic medals in history with a staggering tally of 28, out of which 23 have been gold. And it was his pursuit for excellence, sheer perseverance and single-minded focused that helped him reach the pinnacle of success.
The road to glory
Phelps was diagnosed with hyperactivity disorder at the age of six. His mother encouraged the young boy to take up swimming as it would help him expend his energy. As his two elder sisters also swam at a local club, Phelps also gave it a shot but he hated swimming at first.
“You would think that on the first day I hit the water I just sort of turned into a dolphin and never wanted to leave the pool. No way. I hated it. We’re talking screaming, kicking fit-throwing, goggle-tossing hate,” he wrote in his book Beneath the Surface.
But with time, he found his footing and swimming made him calmer and channelized his energy.
“Once I figured out how to swim, I felt so free. I could go fast in the pool, it turned out, in part because being in the pool slowed down my mind. In the water, I felt, for the first time, in control,” he said.
Phelps was also bullied in school and his parents’ divorce had left a negative effect on his childhood but amid all these issues, swimming turned into his passion. With age, he transformed into a fine swimmer, breaking records at the youth level. By the age of 10, Phelps had become a national ranked swimmer. A year later, he then began training under coach Bob Bowman and he had more records to his name at the age-group level.
Such was his rise that in four years, he qualified for the 2000 Sydney Olympics at the age of 15, becoming the youngest male swimmer after Ralph Flanagan in 1932 to represented the United States in 68 years. Although he didn’t win a medal in Sydney, he finished fifth in the finals of the 200-meter butterfly event.
At the 2004 Athens Olympics, Phelps’ reputation as the world’s best swimmer came to the fore. He finished top of the podium in the 100m and 200m butterfly, 200m and 400m individual medley and the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle relays, securing six golds from eight events that he competed in Greece. He also bagged bronze in the 200m and 4x100m freestyle events to finish with a total of eight medals.
His tally at Athens matched the Olympic record set by Soviet Union gymnast Aleksandr Ditatyn at the 1980 Moscow Games while he was just one gold short of what Spitz had won in Munich.
It was a sign of things to come. In prime form, there were talks of Phelps even breaking Spitz’s Munich record at the Beijing Olympics. But there were many who had doubted the American, including Australia’s five-time Olympic champion Ian Thorpe.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Phelps went on to prove his detractors wrong, breaking one record after another to consolidate his status as a swimming legend, notching eight gold medals. Out of the eight events he competed in, he set new world records in all events barring the 100m butterfly, where he created a new Olympic record.
Phelps’ eight gold medals at Beijing 2008:
400 medley – GOLD – 4:03.84 (WR)
4x100 freestyle relay – GOLD – 3:08.24 (WR)
200 freestyle – GOLD – 1:42.96 (WR)
200 butterfly – GOLD – 1:52.03 (WR)
4x200 freestyle relay – GOLD – 6:58.56 (WR)
200 medley – GOLD – 1:54.23 (WR)
100 butterfly – GOLD – 50.58 (OR)
4x100 medley relay – GOLD – 3:29.34 (WR)
The then 23-year-old started his campaign in China by winning the 400m individual medley by clocking 4:03.84. The pressure on him was immense with US President George Bush present in the stands to watch him but Phelps made it look easy.
On the way to his record haul, there were a few nervy moments as well.
It began with the 4x100m freestyle relay, where France was poised to win gold as the US trailed. However, American Jason Lezak helped his country bag gold in the final leg as he went all out in the final 50 metres to stun France’s Alain Bernard and win by 0.08 of a second.
Phelps would finish first in 200m freestyle event after destroying his opponents before competing in the 200m butterfly, the only event which had left him a tad disappointed. He had broken his record despite water leaking into his goggles, where he was basically swimming blind in the final few metres of the race.
Competing in the 4x200m freestyle relay one hour later, he added another gold to his tally. Phelps beat Hungarian Lazslo Cseh by two seconds in the 200m individual medley, clinching his sixth medal. Although the youngster wasn’t able to set a world record in the 100m butterfly event, it was arguably the best performance he dished out at the event. Phelps rallied back in the final metres to beat Serbia’s Milorad Cavic and win by one-hundredth of a second in epic fashion.
The next morning, Phelps would finally make it eight-for-eight as he and his teammates defeated Australia to finish top of the podium in the 4x100m relay.
Phelps did not win his races in the most dominating fashion. He needed help from teammates in relay win, swam blindly after a goggle malfunction in one race and pulled off a miraculous comeback in another on his way to scripting history: it was his tenacity and hunger to win that paid off.
Phelps revealed that Spitz’s record had provided him the motivation and kept pushing him day after day of hard training.
As Phelps said:
“Records are always made to be broken, no matter what they are.
“Anyone can do anything they want if they really want to. I’ve said all along I want to be the ‘first’ Michael Phelps not the ‘second’ Mark Spitz. Never once will I downplay his accomplishments by any means. What he did is still an amazing feat and will always be an amazing feat in the swimming world and the Olympics.
“To have something like that to shoot for, it made those days when you were tired and didn’t want to be [at practice] and just wanted to go home and sleep, it made those days easier to be able to look at him and say, ‘I want to do this.’ It’s something that I’ve wanted to do, and I’m thankful for having him do what he did.”
Here’s a look at Phelps’ stunning campaign at Beijing: