Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Michael Phelps cements legacy as one of all-time Olympic greats

By Steve Almasy, CNN
August 7, 2012 -- Updated 1429 GMT (2229 HKT)
Michael Phelps shows off his gold medal from the 200-meter Individual medley at the London Olympics on Thursday, August 2. It was his 20th career medal. Michael Phelps shows off his gold medal from the 200-meter Individual medley at the London Olympics on Thursday, August 2. It was his 20th career medal.
History's most decorated Olympian
History's most decorated Olympian
History's most decorated Olympian
History's most decorated Olympian
History's most decorated Olympian
History's most decorated Olympian
History's most decorated Olympian
History's most decorated Olympian
History's most decorated Olympian
History's most decorated Olympian
History's most decorated Olympian
History's most decorated Olympian
History's most decorated Olympian
History's most decorated Olympian
History's most decorated Olympian
  • Michael Phelps swam one event in his first Olympics, placed fifth
  • At age 15, though, people saw his potential to be great swimmer
  • Three Olympics later he has the most medals of all time, most golds
  • He raised the popularity of the sport in America through record-setting performances

(CNN) -- He was only a kid, a 15-year-old with braces, when he first dove into the Olympic spotlight.

He didn't win any medal at the Sydney Olympics, but he gave fans a tiny glimpse of what was to come when he swam the last 50 meters of the 200-meter butterfly faster than anyone else in the pool. He moved from eighth to fifth and moved from side note to talking point just like that.

His teammate Tom Malchow told reporters at those 2000 Games, "He's a true competitor, and he's going to be one of the greats."

Malchow likely meant swimming great. But did anyone expect the long, lean teenager from Baltimore to grow up to be possibly the greatest Olympian in history?

Phelps extends record breaking spree with first individual gold in London

On Tuesday, Phelps won his 19th Olympic medal, more than many countries have ever won. And with a gold on Thursday he moved his overall total to 20 -- 16 gold, two silver and two bronze medals.

Phelps: Six month break set me back
Phelps: Bong picture was a 'mistake'
Phelps: I've been in love twice
Phelps leads US quest for swimming glory

"It's a combination of everything," he told reporters last week on how he became the biggest name in swimming. "You have to have a great work ethic. Have a strong mind, be motivated. There are so many things that come into it.

"I have a decent package so I can't complain."

The United States has been a world power in swimming since the days of Johnny Weissmuller, but Phelps has elevated its status like no other American competitor.

Phelps talks idols, mistakes and his future

NBC once broadcast the world championships live, a rarity for the sport, because Phelps was so popular. He was the first swimmer to win Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year.

After every Summer Olympics the number of swimmers increases, but when Phelps won eight gold medals in an electrifying eight days in Beijing in 2008, it grew exponentially more than previous post-Olympic years, according to a 2009 article in the Orlando Sentinel.

Phelps: 'I'm done with swimming'

Fresh off his record-setting Beijing performance, in an offseason where he was more concerned about tricking out his new apartment than training, he told Sports Illustrated he wasn't worried about the future even though he was out of shape and had put on some pounds.

"When I have to turn the switch back on, I know I can. All I have to do is put my mind to something and that's it, it's done," he said. It took a few years, but after some controversy he became motivated again.

If Michael Phelps were a country: Counting up the medals

He was banned from competition for three months in 2009 after a tabloid newspaper ran a photo of him appearing to inhale from a marijuana pipe. He almost retired, but decided the London Games would be his sendoff from the sport he began as a wispy child in Baltimore.

Phelps, who started swimming to emulate his sisters at age 7, set individual world records 29 times, and still owns records in six events. In the two competitive races he has left he probably won't be besting those times, now that he's almost a swimming old man (and due to slower swimsuits).

He wraps up a career as the most decorated Olympian ever, perhaps the greatest ever. Some commentators will argue the cases of track and field's Carl Lewis, who missed an Olympics due to a U.S. boycott, or distance runner Paavo Nurmi, who won 12 medals. Some might argue for Bjorn Daehlie, the Norwegian cross-country skier. And there's gymnast Larisa Latynina, whose 18 medals are now second all time.

It's a class for which it doesn't take long to call roll.

Phelps signs off with gold as world records tumble in swimming finale

Part of complete coverage on
August 13, 2012 -- Updated 1353 GMT (2153 HKT)
The moment that Team GB's Mo Farah won the 10,000 meters was a wonderful collision of electricity.
August 13, 2012 -- Updated 1534 GMT (2334 HKT)
His blistering pace and larger-than-life antics made him the king of the track in London, and bolstered his claims to be a "living legend."
August 14, 2012 -- Updated 0944 GMT (1744 HKT)
Disappointment for Nigeria's Muizat Ajoke Odumosu, who came last in the 400m hurdles final, London 2012 Olympics.
The Olympics are generally won and lost long before the opening ceremony cauldron is touched by fire.
August 12, 2012 -- Updated 0738 GMT (1538 HKT)
Fans of the home side, Team GB, wave Union Jack flags during the Olympic Games
CNN's Richard Quest believes the London Games will be regarded as having brought the Olympics concept home.
August 11, 2012 -- Updated 1633 GMT (0033 HKT)
Strategist Alastair Campbell says he never imagined London 2012 would be quite the triumph it turned out to be.
August 14, 2012 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Award-winning director Danny Boyle celebrates the best of British music in London 2012's Olympic Closing Ceremony.
January 31, 2013 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
From Usain Bolt's record-setting achievements to an unexpected Ugandan gold, London 2012 has provided a wide array of highlights.
August 13, 2012 -- Updated 0305 GMT (1105 HKT)
CNN's Amanda Davies recaps the London 2012 Olympics from the opening ceremony on July 27 to the finale on day 16.
August 12, 2012 -- Updated 1702 GMT (0102 HKT)
Mo Farah and Usain Bolt celebrate their success at the London 2012 Olympic Games by copying each other's
It's been just over two weeks since the Queen parachuted into London's Olympic Stadium, her apricot dress flapping in the breeze.
August 15, 2012 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
When the world's top marathon runners bid to win Olympic gold, they would do well to draw inspiration from one of the greatest athletes in the history of track and field.
August 11, 2012 -- Updated 1633 GMT (0033 HKT)
Team GB supporters with their faces painted in Union Jack designs at the Olympic Stadium in London.
Alastair Campbell always thought London 2012 would be a success, but never imagined it would be quite the triumph it has turned out to be.
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 1021 GMT (1821 HKT)
Adrien Niyonshuti is unlikely to win an Olympic medal, and he will do well to even finish his event, but his story is surely one of the most inspirational.
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 1605 GMT (0005 HKT)
The colors of the Olympic Rings at the Olympic Park in Stratford, east London, August 2012.
Olympic fever has cheered up London and made it a more welcoming place, but will optimism be one of the legacies of the Games?
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Wojdan Shaherkani's Olympic debut was short, but sweet -- the Saudi judoka said competing at the Games was
London 2012 is the first Olympics to feature women in every national team, with Jacques Rogge hailing a "major boost for gender equality."
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
An impoverished South Korean gymnast has not only struck Olympic gold, but also reaped a $444,000 donation in a veritable rags to riches tale.
August 9, 2012 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
Britain's hero Jessica Ennis is set to cash in after winning heptathlon gold, but the poster girl of the 2012 Olympics says fame is not her motivation.
August 8, 2012 -- Updated 0746 GMT (1546 HKT)
China is rallying around fallen hurdler Liu Xiang after he failed to make it past the first-round heat for a second consecutive Olympics.
August 3, 2012 -- Updated 1930 GMT (0330 HKT)
The first woman to win Olympic gold almost died in a plane crash, but remarkably returned to run again for the U.S. in 1936.
August 7, 2012 -- Updated 1504 GMT (2304 HKT)
Don Paige could not bear to watch the race he knew he could win. The 1980 Moscow Olympics were the death of a dream for many athletes.
August 4, 2012 -- Updated 1421 GMT (2221 HKT)
Ricardo Blas Jr
While Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt grab the headlines, little-known athletes from around the world keep alive the original spirit of the Olympics.
Athletes spend years eating the right foods ... and then must resist the free fast food in the Olympic village. How do they do it?