10 Years Ago: Michael Phelps Becomes The Greatest Olympian

Maybe there’s something special about August 17 and sports. In 1933, Lou Gehrig played his 1,308th consecutive game. In 1969, the New York Jets and the New York Giants played each other for the first time. In 1973, Willie Mays turned a pitch from Reds leftie Don Gullett into the 660th and final home run of his peerless career. And 10 years ago today in 2008, Michael Phelps did the seemingly impossible by taking eight gold medals in a single Olympic Games.

Mark Spitz in a pool
Mark Spitz in 1969. (Wikimedia Commons)

The previous record of seven golds in a single Games had been set in 1972 by another American swimmer, Mark Spitz. Spitz was a legitimate superstar. Not only did he win seven events in ’72, he broke the world record in each one. His career gold medal total would be nine, while also notching a silver and a bronze. In addition, he would take five Pan American Games golds, 31 Amateur Athletic Union titles, and eight NCAA championships. In addition to the seven at the ’72 games, he would set another 28 world records during his career. He retired at the ripe old age of 22.

Michael Phelps smiling
Michael Phelps at the 2016 Olympic Games. (Photo by Agência Brasil Fotografias; Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

Spitz’s record was viewed as untouchable, a once in a generation, or maybe millennium, achievement. Then came Phelps. He began swimming at seven, and was the national youth record holder in the 100m butterfly by age 10. Even then, pundits were dissecting the details of what exactly made Phelps an ideal swimmer. Bob Bowman, who has coached Phelps since he turned 11, attributes some of his success to “rigid focus.” Bob Schaller, author of Michael Phelps: The Untold Story of a Champion, elaborated on another element of Phelps’s success: his relationship with Bowman. Schaller says, “The fit was perfect. Bob was made to coach Michael . . . That he and Michael were in perfect step is part of the miracle that was Michael’s career.” In fact, at the outset of the Bowman/Phelps partnership, Schaller had the chance to ask Bowman how he planned to coach the “Gangly with a capital G” young man. Bowman told him, “”There is no blueprint for this. I will either screw this up so badly that no one will forgive me, or we’ll get it right and no one will forget me.”

Others have commented on Phelps’s unusual physique, including the swimmer himself. In his 2009 book with Alan Abrahamson, No Limits: The Will to Succeed, Phelps suggests that his body type played a large role in his success in the pool. His 6’4” height, his unusually long wingspan (6’ 7”), his lean frame, and his size-14 feet would each contribute advantages in terms of start, propulsion, and movement in the water.

Going into the 2008 Games, Phelps had already notched an incredible record of achievement. He qualified for the 2000 Olympics at age 15 but finished out of the medals. At the 2001 World Championships, before turning 16, Phelps broke the 200m butterfly world record and took gold. This was a significant indicator of the future for Phelps. As Schaller says, “The 200 fly is the kingmaker in men’s swimming.” After that win, Phelps embarked on an incredible winning streak; through the 2002 Pan Pacific championships to the 2003 Worlds, he pulled down another seven golds (two in relays), four silvers (two in relays), and four world records. The 2004 Olympic Games assured the world of Phelps’s place in history; he won six golds (two in relays) and two bronzes (one in a relay).

Highlights of Phelps from the 2004 Olympic Games.
Anticipation ran high as Phelps returned to the pool for 2008. Through the 2005 Worlds, the 2006 Pan Pacifics, and the 2007 Worlds, he won a staggering 17 golds and two silvers. Six of his seven golds at the 2007 Worlds came with a world or event record. The world was ready to see something special in Beijing. Phelps was ready to give it to them.

Shortly after the opening of the 2008 Olympic Games on August 8, Phelps set an Olympic record in his preliminary heat for the 400m individual medley; he subsequently won gold in the event while breaking his own brand-new record by two seconds. As the event went on, whether alone or on relay squads, Phelps dominated the competition, shattering records in every event. Phelps took his seventh gold medal of the games in the 100m butterfly.

But one more race remained. On August 17, Phelps joined teammates Brendan HansenAaron Peirsol, and Jason Lezak in the pool for the 4x100m medley relay. The U.S. team was behind Japan and Australia heading into the third leg. When Phelps hit the water to do the 100m butterfly, he moved at a record-breaking pace, turning in the fastest time ever for the butterfly split in the event. When Lezak dove in, Phelps had handed him a half-second lead. It would be enough. Michael Phelps had eight gold medals in one Olympics.

Team USA compiled a highlight reel of Phelps’s eight Olympic gold medal wins in 2008.

Schaller offers some context on the eighth win. He says, “[It was] breathtaking. There’s no way it should have happened. Too many variables. One swimmer pulling out of everything else just to make a run at beating Michael in the 100 fly. Several relay swimmers who had not at least recently gone as fast as they’d have to for this thing to work — Jason Lezak on the relay, plus several other relay swimmers, come to mind. Michael not letting everything around him get to him . . . statistically, especially with the whole world getting so much better at swimming and faster, [this] was impossible — that’s what made Michael, and his feat, so legendary. “

For a normal human, that might have been enough. But for the swimmer that his teammates, competition, and commentators call “Superman,” that was simply one peak in a career of mountain ranges. He took four golds and two silvers at the 2012 Olympics, and another five golds and one silver in 2016. His World and Pan Pacific success continued, with a combined 17 further golds earned at events between 2009 and 2014, as well as another five silvers and one bronze. Phelps didn’t swim the Worlds in 2015 after being excluded from the team after being cited for DUI; however, he did compete in both the U. S. Nationals and Winter Nationals, winning three golds in each.

At the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil, Phelps’s teammates voted for him to carry the flag of the United States at the Opening Ceremonies.

Today, Phelps considers himself retired. He’s the most decorated Olympian of all time, with 28 medals, of which 23 are gold. He also has the most medals in individual events and the most gold medals in individual events, with 16 and 13, respectively. In terms of the other international championships, he has won 82 total medals. He still holds three long-course world records. His achievements may never be equaled. In Schaller’s book, no less an authority than Mark Spitz said, “It goes to show you that not only is this guy the greatest swimmer of all time and the greatest Olympian of all time, he’s maybe the greatest athlete of all time. He’s the greatest racer who ever walked the planet.”

News of the Week: Fired Muppets, Snortable Chocolate, and Michael Phelps vs. a Great White Shark

It’s Not Easy Being Green

Is it possible for a puppet to get fired?

In the case of Kermit the Frog, it is. Specifically, the voice behind the Muppet has been fired. Disney has canned Steve Whitmire, who has provided the voice of the popular Sesame Street character for almost 30 years, after taking over the role from creator Jim Henson.

The reason? Whitmire says that two Disney executives told him it was because he sent notes that were too detailed, which made people uncomfortable, and also because of a contract dispute regarding a video project that Whitmire declined to do. Whitmire says that he’s upset, because he’s put three decades into the job and it’s his “life’s work.” He sees it as a betrayal. In a press release, Disney says they let Whitmire go because he displayed “repeated unacceptable business conduct” over the years.

Matt Vogel will take over the role of Kermit. Miss Piggy, who has been romantically involved with Kermit in the past, could not be reached for comment.

Nose Candy

I know what you’re thinking: You love chocolate, but you’re tired of consuming it the old-fashioned way, via the mouth. Surely there must be a way to get chocolate into the body in some other way?

There is! It’s called Coco Loko, and it’s chocolate in powder form that you can snort! Apparently it has been popular at European parties for years, but now it’s here in the United States, and people are wondering if it’s legal to sell or even safe to eat, if “eat” can even be used to describe what you’re doing with it.

Coming soon: Chocolate in liquid form that you take intravenously. You don’t get the pleasure of experiencing the taste of the chocolate but you still get the rush and calories.

Michael Phelps Is Going to Race a Shark, for Some Reason

Actually, the reason is because it’s part of the Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week. It’s called, appropriately enough, “Phelps vs. Shark.” The Olympic gold medal winner will race against a great white this Sunday, July 23, at 8 p.m. And no, Phelps won’t be in a cage. Both he and the shark will be in open water. But since the show was taped weeks ago and Phelps is doing interviews for it this week, we can safely assume he wasn’t eaten. No word yet on who won.

RIP Martin Landau, George Romero, Bob Wolff, Harvey Atkin, and John Bernecker

Martin Landau was a fine actor who had some great movie roles over the years, in such films as North by Northwest, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Ed Wood, for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Bela Lugosi. He also appeared in TV shows like Mission: Impossible, Space: 1999, and a million others since the 1950s. Landau died Saturday at the age of 89.

His first job was as a cartoonist for The New York Daily News, and he turned down the role of Mr. Spock on Star Trek.

If you like The Walking Dead you partly have George Romero to thank. He wrote and directed the classic 1968 horror flick Night of the Living Dead and its many sequels. He also directed Creepshow, The Dark Half, and a 1974 documentary titled O.J. Simpson: Juice on the Loose (which might be a good movie to watch this week to coincide with Simpson’s parole hearing). Romero passed away Sunday at the age of 77.

Speaking of The Walking Dead, the show was temporarily shut down this week after the death on the set of stuntman John Bernecker. The 33-year-old also did stunts for movies like Logan and Fantastic Four as well as TV shows like Memphis Beat and The Vampire Diaries.

Bob Wolff was the longest-running sportscaster in TV and radio history. He’s not only the only person to have announced the championship games in each of the four major sports, he interviewed Babe Ruth. Wolff died Saturday at the age of 96.

Harvey Atkin played the camp director in the classic comedy Meatballs, was a regular on Cagney & Lacey, and acted in such shows as Law and Order: SVU and many cartoons. He died earlier this week at the age of 74.

Town Honors World War II Vet with No Family

What happens when a World War II vet with no close relatives dies? Hopefully the community comes together to honor him. That’s exactly what the citizens of Pembroke, Massachusetts did when former Marine Malcolm Phillips, who died at the age of 92.

Moon Dust

Nancy Carlson likes space so much that she paid $995 for a bag used on the historic Apollo 11 mission. The forgotten bag was auctioned off yesterday at Sotheby’s, and she got a great return on her investment ($1.5 million). But she almost lost the bag in a legal fight with NASA.

After Carlson bought the bag, complete with moon dust still inside, she sent it to the space agency to make sure it was authentic. NASA said it was indeed a real bag used during Apollo 11, but she wasn’t getting it back because it shouldn’t have been sold in the first place! She sued and won but decided it would be safer to auction it off than keep it in her home.

This Week in History

Apollo 11 Lands on the Moon (July 20, 1969)

The NASA mission that included that bag happened 48 years ago yesterday (it’s not a coincidence the Sotheby’s auction took place yesterday). Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins took off from the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida, on July 16 and landed on the moon four days later. Armstrong was the first to step foot on the surface, followed by Aldrin (Collins stayed on board the command module to pilot it). Here’s how CBS covered it:

Ernest Hemingway Born (July 21, 1899)

The acclaimed author never wrote for the Post (he submitted but we didn’t accept — sorry!) but he did appear on the March 12, 1966, cover.

This Week in Saturday Evening Post History

“Doing Dishes at the Beach” (July 19, 1952)

Stevan Dohanos
July 19, 1952

You can look at this Stevan Dohanos cover two ways. It could be a funny picture — oh, that wacky husband and kids of mine, having fun on the beach while I’m stuck doing dishes just like at home! — or you could look at it as kind of sad, for the very same reasons. I lean toward the latter. I think it’s the way Dohanos shows her only from the back, looking off into the distance at her family having fun while she works, face unseen.

Today Is National Junk Food Day

At first, I thought I wasn’t going to be able to link to any recipes for this day. How do you find recipes for “junk food”? It’s usually just something we buy at the supermarket or fast food place, right? But this is the web, so …

Here are instructions on how to make a homemade version of a Big Mac, and here’s a recipe for your own version of the Chick-Fil-A Chicken Sandwich. If your junk food tastes run more toward snacks and desserts, here are recipes for homemade versions of Oreos, Hostess Sno Balls, peanut butter cups, and Goldfish Crackers.

Or if you’re feeling lazy, you could just go out and buy them.

Next Week’s Holidays and Events

National Parents’ Day (July 23)

The day was established under President Bill Clinton in 1994.

National Talk in an Elevator Day (July 28)

This is the day you have permission to talk to random strangers you meet on the elevator, about anything you want. Anything! Talk to them about politics, about the weather, about movies, even talk to them about your collection of elephant figurines or the history of cheese. They’ll love it!