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Superhuman Feature of the Month: Michael Phelps

Updated 
November 10, 2020
Written by 
Gianna

       

                                                                                                 Photo credit: Simon Bruty Sports Illustrated

Twenty-three golds, three silvers and two bronze Olympic medals. The most of any Olympian ever. When veteran author Tim Layden said “No athlete had a 2016 like Michael Phelps”, he wasn’t kidding.

Chasing Rhodes

The 2016 Summer Olympics was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. At the time, 31-year-old Michel Phelps was already the most decorated Olympian of all time. Remarkably, that was also the first time he attended the Games’ Opening Ceremony, as he was chosen to be the flag bearer for Team USA.

On 11 August 2016, Phelps competed in and won the 200m individual medley. In winning his 13th individual gold, he broke a record that has stood for over 2 millennia. The ancient Olympic record was 12 gold medals, held by Leonidas of Rhodes.

Two days later, Phelps swam in the 4x100m medley relay, swimming the butterfly leg. Team USA broke the Olympic record with a time of 3:27.95 and Phelps won his 23rd Olympic gold.

Phelps retired after the Rio Olympics. But his legacy has been cemented. The world was unanimous in declaring him as one of the greatest Olympians of all time.

"The only reason I ever got in the water was my mom wanted me to just learn how to swim.”

Michael Phelps was born with sports in his DNA. He was the youngest of three children. His father was a high school and college football player who once tried out for the Washington Redskins.

When his two older sisters joined a local swim team, little Michael - needing an outlet for his boundless energy, was influenced to join them. As a 7-year-old swimming for the first time, Phelps didn’t even want to put his head underwater. He was allowed to just float on his back. This resulted in him mastering the backstroke before any other stroke.

He eventually began training under coach Bob Bowman. By the time he was 10, Phelps already held the national record in his age group for the 100m butterfly.

In 1996, his sister Whitney, then 15 years old, tried out for the Olympic team. Unfortunately, injuries derailed her career. Ironically, it was seeing swimmers Tom Malchow and Tom Dolan at the 1996 Games that Phelps began dreaming of Olympic glory. Four years later, he’ll get his first shot at making his dream a reality.

Photo credit: Owaves

“I always thought, it would be neat to make the Olympic team.”


The 2000 US Olympic trials were held at the Indiana University Natatorium. Michael Phelps, 6 feet 3 inches but still sporting braces on his teeth, finished second in the 200m butterfly. Interestingly enough, the gold went to Tom Malchow. This earned him a spot in the Olympic team going to Sydney.

With that, Phelps became the youngest US Olympic male swimmer to qualify in almost 70 years. He was 15 years old.

Malchow was quoted as saying, “He doesn’t know what it means to go to an Olympics. He doesn’t know how it’s going to change his life. He’s going to find out soon.”

“The best is ahead of you.”

Michael Phelps went to the Sydney Olympics with his swimming idols. In his first round heat, he swam a personal best and defeated Olympic champion Denis Pankratov of Russia. During the semifinals, he once again clocked a personal best.

In the finals, Phelps finished with a time of 1:56.50. But while it was faster than any other previous Olympic times, in Sydney, it was only good for a fifth place finish. After the event, Malchow told Phelps, “The best is ahead of you.”

Five months later at the spring nationals in Austin, Texas, Phelps broke the 200m fly record, becoming the youngest man to do so. Michael Phelps was now a world champion.

No Limits

There was no looking back for Phelps after his first world championship. At the Nationals the following year, he set the American record in the 200m individual medley. At the Pan Pacific Swimming Championship in Japan, Phelps won 3 golds and 2 silvers. He also set a world record in the 4x100 medley.

At the 2003 World Championships, Phelps upped his medal tally by adding 4 more golds and 2 silvers. He set world records in the 200m and 400m medleys as well as in the 4x100m medley.

At the US Olympic trials in 2004, he competed in the 400m individual medley. He clocked 4:08.41, a world record, and more than good enough to qualify for the Olympics. Five days later, he finally beat the veteran Malchow at the 200m butterfly. After the event was done, he became the first person in US history to qualify for 6 individual events.

The 2004 Olympic Games was held in Athens. Phelps’ first event was the 400m individual medley. He won the gold, his first in the Olympics, in world record time. He would go on to win a total of 2 bronze medals and 6 golds. It was just one medal shy of another swimming legend – Mark Spitz’s 7 gold-medal finish at the 1972 Olympics.

Over the next 8 years, Michael Phelps would dominate the sport of swimming.

“It's cool just because I've had this dream of changing the sport of swimming and it's finally happening.”


Between 2004 and 2012, Michael Phelps won over 30 gold medals in national and world championships. Many of those races also set world records. But the biggest achievement of his career came via the 2008 Olympics. In winning his 8th gold medal in Beijing, he has won the most golds in a single Olympics. The previous record stood for 36 years.

In London 4 years later, Phelps once again surpassed himself. By winning 4 more Olympic golds and 2 silver medals, he became the most successful swimmer for 3 Olympics in a row. He also officially became the most decorated Olympian of any sport ever.

“I’m done. No more.”

After the 2012 Olympics, Michael Phelps shocked the world by announcing his retirement from competitive swimming. “I just wanted to be done with swimming and didn’t want anything to do with the sport anymore.”

Phelps was, in his own words, “tired.” He already admitted losing his drive after Beijing, and who can blame him? A look at his training regimen and one would be left with one thought: brutal.

A typical Michael Phelps day looks like this –

6:00 am - Wake up

7:00 am – 2hr Swim

9:00 am –  2hrs Weight Training

10:00 am – Eat

12:00 am – 1hr Nap

4:00 pm – 2hrs Swim

8:00 pm – Dinner

10:00 pm – Sleep

If it looks like he didn’t get a lot of personal time, it’s because he didn’t. If it looks like 2 hours was a lot to spend on a meal, it probably was for a normal person. But Phelps was burning so many calories with his workout that he had to eat a huge amount of calories to be able to keep going. His trainer said Phelps loses 5 to 10 pounds a week from training.

Here’s a sample one-day menu:


Phelps would also swim a total of 80,000 meters every week. This was followed by weight training that included:

-        Sculling

-        Training gear in water

-        Training paddles

-        Snorkels and kick boards

-        Sled push

-        Sled reverse Flye

-      Vertical  and underwater kicking

It would certainly take a superhuman to go through all of that on a daily basis. But then again, one could argue that Phelps wasn’t exactly normal.

Back in the Saddle (and into the pool)

Two years post-retirement, Phelps underwent a downward spiral that saw him being arrested twice for drunk driving (DUI). He finally entered rehab after the second arrest. Six painful weeks later, Phelps is back with a clearer mind and an even clearer focus: the 2016 Olympics.

How did he do it? On top of the aforementioned stringent training routine, Coach Bowman shares the following tips.

1.     Make time for mental training.

Bowman believes athletes are separated by their “mental game”. Elite athletes like Phelps are “most goal-oriented.”

To help improve your mental game, it helps to write down your goals and reference them daily. This lets you know where you are in your training and allows you to focus on where you aim to be.

2.     Visualize.

Phelps would lay in bed at night and visualize his races. He’d envision best-case scenarios but also anticipate worst-case ones. This way, he’s always planning ahead and would know how to react in the event his goggles break or his suit rips or any other possible mishap that can occur during the actual heats.  

3.     Practice resilience.

Resilience is defined as the ability to return to form or recover. In the case of Phelps, he believed that the only “true” metric of his success was proper training and trying his best. He didn’t dwell on losses and always set his eyes ahead.

4.     Proper nutrition is key.

Being a professional athlete does not automatically mean never indulging in so-called “bad food.” Phelps himself didn’t follow any strict nutritional guidelines. He has said, “I'm a Dunkin' Donuts kind of guy. I also like Cadbury's.” But eating the right food should help you perform better.

Some good options include:

-        Pasta salad

-        Fruits like bananas, grapes, apricots, mangoes and apples

-        Raisins

-        Plain sandwiches

-        Crackers

-        Cereal and fruit bars

-        Vegetables like carrots and cucumbers

5.     Ensure you get proper rest and recovery.

Many would argue that swimming does not require rest days. But training for swim competitions can be very taxing on the body. Because of this, experts still suggest taking a rest. And yes, you can still swim on rest days, just not as hard as you would on your regular training day. In fact, in-water recovery was shown to increase blood flow and minimize performance loss.

Phelps also utilized cupping, hyperbaric pressure chambers, cold baths, stretching and massage to recover.

Massage in particular, is popular among athletes, coaches and physical therapists. Studies show massage benefits the body by helping reduce blood lactate and improve swimming performance.

If you do not have the time to go to a spa or schedule a massage therapist however, one other quick and easy massage therapy option is by using a massage gun like the HYDRAGUN. It utilizes percussion therapy to stimulate blood circulation, minimize the effect of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and helps shorten recovery time.

The Greatest Olympian of All Time

Michael Phelps came out of retirement in 2016 more focused and more mature, in mind and in body. At 31, he was no longer the fresh-faced, 15-year-old Olympic novice. He was a celebrated athlete, a swimming legend and the first American male swimmer to ever appear in five Olympic Games.

Rio gave Phelps five more gold medals and one silver, further cementing his status as the most decorated Olympian. In the course of his professional career, he won over 80 medals and broke dozens of world records, many of them still standing today.

He was awarded World Swimmer of the Year eight times, and American Swimmer of the Year eleven times. He was FINA Swimmer of the Year in 2012 and again in 2016. He was even accorded the Sportsman of the Year award by Sports Illustrated.

Phelps retired a second time after Rio, saying he was “ready for something different.” He once said,

For Sydney, I just wanted to make the team. For Athens, I wanted to win gold for my country. For Beijing, I wanted to do something nobody else had done. In London, I wanted to make history.

No one can argue that Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer of all time, certainly did that.



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