Michael Phelps made himself into the foremost Golden Boy of the U. S. Olympic team in the 2000s on his way to becoming the most prolific gold-medalist in the event's history. A Maryland-born wunderkind, Phelps made the U.S. national swimming team at age 15, growing into a lithe 6'4" youth with incredible power in the water. He put his sport on notice in international competition in 2001, becoming the youngest male athlete to set a world record at the World Aquatics Championships. Returning to the U.S. team for the 2004 Olympics, he garnered six gold medals and two bronze, becoming the most celebrated swimmer since Olympic great Mark Spitz won seven gold medals in 1972. Phelps would be the frontispiece of Olympic hopes and marketing four years later when he eclipsed Spitz's record with eight gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympiad. In spite of a raft of major corporations inking his endorsement and likeness for advertising, including Visa, Subway, PowerBar, Under Armour and Kellogg Co., he made nearly as many headlines when images of him smoking marijuana surfaced in the wake of Beijing. He nevertheless returned for what he insisted would be his final Olympiad, the London 2012 Games, and secured another four gold and two silver medals, making him the most decorated Olympian of all time, having claimed 18 gold and 22 medals total. Phelps became one of those rare Olympic athletes whose singular talents bolted him beyond the limitations of quadrennial stardom to become a crossover celebrity.
Michael Fred Phelps was born on June 30, 1985 in Baltimore, MD to Fred Phelps, a state trooper, and Debbie, a middle-school principal. The future Olympian took after his father, who was an all-star athlete. Phelps had two older sisters, Whitney and Hilary, who inspired him to take up swimming at age seven after they both joined a local team. As a young man, Phelps was also involved in other sports, including baseball, golf, soccer and football. After his parents divorced in 1994, he and his sisters went on to live with their mother, whom Phelps grew very close to. His sister Whitney tried out for the U.S. Olympic team, but injuries prevented her from qualifying at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. Watching swimmers like Tom Malchow and Tom Dolan compete further developed the young Phelps' passion for the sport. He began his swimming career while attending Loyola High School in Towson, MD. A new male figure also entered Phelps' life during that time, his coach Bob Bowman, who trained him at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club at the Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center. Bowman put Phelps through an intensive training regimen that fully maximized the potential of his natural athleticism and physical prowess.
At the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia, Phelps became the youngest American male swimmer in 68 years to compete in the Olympics. Even though he did not medal in Sydney, there was no doubt the young athlete made a huge impression in the sporting world. The following year, Phelps set a world record in the 200-meter butterfly event, only to beat his own record shortly after at the 2001 World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan. By the age of 17, Phelps had already set five world records and set himself up as the favorite to win at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. He won eight medals in Athens - six gold and two bronze - and tied with Soviet gymnast Aleksandr Dityatin (in 1980) for the most medals won in a single Olympic Games. Phelps also beat his own record in the 400-meter individual medley at the 2004 Olympics. A few weeks following his success in Athens, Phelps was arrested in Maryland for driving under the influence of alcohol. He pleaded guilty to driving while impaired, and was sentenced to 18 months probation. He also paid a $250 fine, and was ordered to speak to high school students about drunk driving and attend a Mothers Against Drunk Driving meeting. During an interview on the "Today" (NBC, 1952- ) later that month, Phelps told Matt Lauer that he regretted his actions and let a lot of people in the country down, including himself.
Phelps attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he studied sports marketing and management. His longtime coach Bowman happened to coach the school's swim team and Club Wolverine, the club Phelps swam for. His dominance in swimming was widely attributed to Phelps' physique, consisting of a long, thin torso, wide arm span, relatively short legs and size 14 feet. As the favorite to lead the U.S. swimming team at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China, Phelps was determined to surpass Mark Spitz's 1972 record of winning seven gold medals in Munich, Germany. Millions watched as Phelps raced his way to Olympic history by winning gold in the 4-by-100-meter individual relay, 4-by-100-meter freestyle relay, 200-meter freestyle, 200-meter butterfly, 4-by-200-meter freestyle relay, 200-meter individual medley and 100-meter butterfly. Even more impressive was that he set a new world record in each event, except in the 100-meter butterfly, where he set an Olympic record. His record breaking wins in Beijing brought up allegations that Phelps may have used performance-enhancing drugs. The athlete reportedly tested nine times during the Games, and passed each one. He graced the August 2008 cover of Sports Illustrated adorned with his eight gold medals, a tribute to Spitz's iconic pose from 1972.
In addition to his success in sports, Phelps had lucrative endorsement deals, wrote a couple of books including No Limits: The Will to Succeed (2008), and made guest appearances on shows such as "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) and "Entourage" (HBO, 2004-2011). His All-American image was tainted once again in early 2009 after the British tabloid News of the World published a photo of Phelps smoking out of a bong. Even though the Richland County Sheriff's Department could not produce enough evidence of wrongdoing to prosecute him, Phelps was suspended by USA Swimming (the governing body for competitive swimming) for three months, while Kellogg's announced it was not going to renew the athlete's endorsement contract. But he largely weathered the storm and, as of 2010, added sportswear marketer Under Armour to his endorsement roster and became a regular face on Subway's television ads in ensuing years. With the approach of the London Olympics, some buzz swelled around the U.S. team as Phelps' times lagged and up-and-coming star Ryan Lochte periodically outswam him in lead-up events. As of the 2012 Olympic Trials, Phelps rebounded to qualify for the same eight events he swam in Beijing, though he would drop one to focus on relay races. He took two early silver medals and, as of the U.S. team's win in the 4x200 relay, he had won his 19th Olympic medal, the most of any athlete in the history of the games. He took gold again in 200-meter individual, defeating Lochte, in the 100-meter butterfly and in the 4x100 medley relay, finishing his Olympic career with a total of 18 gold medals and 22 total. As of his retirement, Phelps still held records in three individual events, had set but seen records eclipsed in the 200-meter freestyle and 200-meter individual medley, and had won a total 71 medals in major international competitions, 57 of them gold.
By Matthew Grimm