They call him the ‘Flying Fish’. That’s the perfect description, because ‘swimmer’ does not encompass what he does in water. A total of 28 Olympics medals, 23 of which are gold. It’s safe to say that he’s the most decorated Olympian of all time. And that’s how we know him.
He dominates the pool like he was born to do it. Sometimes, it feels like a Ferrari has wrongly entered a race between Fiat Puntos. They’re lucky it is water, so much rubber and dust on the face would’ve been hard to take.
But for once, let’s not talk about his victories. Let’s talk about the defeats. The two defeats that turned Michael Phelps into the greatest sportsman of the era.
By the time he was 12, he had already been swimming for 5 years. Phelps was born to rule the waters. He was used to winning. He entered a competition which had six events, expecting to win all of them.
And then, the unthinkable happened. He lost. He was beaten in the 200 m freestyle. It was a wake up call for him. A defining moment.
How would you expect a kid to react to that? Cry, perhaps? Not race further? But there was always something different about Mike. He somehow felt the hurt run deep. It reached a place where nothing else had done before. He never had the feeling. It was alien to him, that feeling of defeat.
His reaction to it though was not of a kid, not even of an adult. But of a champion.
He took part in five more races during the meet. He conquered all five. He used his loss to push himself off the diving board further, to cut through water harder and touch the wall before anyone even dared to.
Aged 15, he had already made the Olympic team.
The real question was. Was it just a one-off? Or was this really a part of Michael’s personality? His fuel, so to speak.
Michael’s rise was no shock. At Athens 2004, what many called the Race of Century, Ian Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband triumphed over Phelps in the 200 m freestyle. Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals at the 1972 event still stood. Phelps finished with six in Athens. It wasn’t really a loss. But of that particular race, he said:
“That loss, has to be looked at as a – maybe the – defining race of my career. I stepped up and raced the best. I found out I was good, but not good enough. I had work to do.”
During the next Olympics in 2008, he bettered Spitz’s record by winning 8 golds. After the 7th itself, Spitz declared Phelps as the greatest athlete of all time.
There’s not much debating that. But he had again gotten used to winning. The defeats that spurred him on did not seem to come by anymore. The 12-year-old boy who had lost once to win more did not get an encore after all these years.
Until he arrived in Rome in 2009 for the World Aquatics Championships. The first event was 4 x 100 m freestyle. The team won gold. In the second race, however, the 200 m freestyle, German swimmer Paul Biedermann defeated Michael and broke his record of 1:42.96 by clocking 1:42.00. Phelps’ coach blamed the swimsuits. Apparently, Biedermann had worn a polyurethane swimsuit that tipped the scales in his favour. There were rumours that Phelps might quit.
It was a flashback to 12 years ago, when a young Michael was beaten in the 200 m freestyle. His response? Exactly the same. One of a champion. There were four more events left. He won all four. Including an annihilating victory in the 200 m butterfly. Arch-shaped, his body appeared at perfect intervals as he showed the world how it’s done.
In the final race, the 100 m freestyle, he was up against Milorad Cavic. The Serbian claimed that Phelps was making excuses and even offered to buy him a new suit. At the end of the race, Phelps stood tall in the water. All 6 feet 7 inches of him raising his fist and pumping his chest fiercely, in his same old swimsuit.
He’s better off in the water than in front of the camera. He’s not great with words and he answers with his powerful strokes that send ripples through the pool. He calls it his safe haven.
He may not be great at other things, but he’s the best at what he does.
You know how they say you shouldn’t get on the wrong side of great athletes? Well, Michael Phelps is different. He’s the greatest of them all. He encourages people to get on his wrong side, so that he passes them by in the lanes, regardless of which side he’s on. His only goal – touch that wall before anyone else does. And more often than not. That is the case.
As long as there are men, there will be champions. Turning losses to victories and defeats into records. And when it comes to that, there are only two types of people in the world:
Michael ‘The Alpha’ Phelps and everyone else.