Phelps Probably the Greatest Swimmer of All Time

When the American 4×100 meter medley relay team, starring Michael Phelps on the butterfly leg, won a gold medal over the weekend it put paid to Phelps’ promise of winning eight gold medals in the 2008 Olympics. This has been an astounding performance. He is probably the greatest swimmer of all time — but only probably, as we shall explain.

In winning these eight golds, Phelps beat the record of our fellow Indiana swimmer, Mark Spitz, who hitherto has been acclaimed the greatest swimmer of all time. In the 1972 Olympics Spitz won seven gold medals, all in world record times. Great as Phelps’ 2008 achievement is, he has failed to break Spitz’s 1972 record of seven world records, for Phelps, in his 100-meter butterfly victory, failed to break the world record. Thus he has to share Spitz’s record of seven world records in an Olympiad. Of course, Phelps is only 23. He may come back in four years and set eight world records.

When he does we hope he will not be wearing the high-tech swimming suit he has worn this year. Such extraneous equipage makes it impossible to compare his performances with those of earlier champions and distracts from his performance. Truth be known, the gadgetry even casts doubt as to whether his world-record production in this Olympiad is comparable to Spitz’s production in 1972. Spitz won his seven golds and established his seven world records wearing a standard 1970s vintage Speedo swimsuit, covering his private parts (for modesty sake) and costing somewhere in the area of $10.

Phelps has been wearing the high-tech Speedo LZR Racer, designed in cooperation with NASA. It covers half his body, compresses it, and practically eliminates water resistance. It takes twenty minutes to get into, can tear apart while being put on, and has such an abrasive surface it is dangerous to the touch. Swimmers have been known to tear their fingers while putting it on. Moreover it costs $550.

It is estimated that the LZR Racer cuts 3% from a swimmer’s performance. Thus if one wants to get finicky one will increase Phelps’ record-breaking times by 3%. Did Phelps better each world record by better than 3%? If not, his world record haul is less than Spitz’s in 1972, and his claim to being the world’s greatest swimmer is diminished.

On the other hand physically, Phelps certainly looks like the world’s greatest swimmer. He appears as though he were genetically engineered. Whereas Spitz was of average height and average appearance, Phelps is something else. He has the arm span of a 6’ 7” man, though he is actually 6’ 4” Such arms give him tremendous leverage and stroke lengths. Watch him in the freestyle. His arms are underwater pulling him forward through most of his stroke cycle. Then there is the matter of his powerful legs. Not only are they powerful but they are comparatively short, actually being the length of a six-footer. Thus they create very little drag. Finally he has a size 14 shoe. Feet that large are like swim fins, and so flexible are his ankles that his feet serve as swim fins. He also has very large and flexible hands.

For that matter his whole body is flexible, that being the consequence of modern stretch techniques and weight training. All of this gives him the ability to hyperextend in the water and move like a dolphin beneath the water’s surface. The modern competitive swimmer spends far more time dolphining beneath the surface of a pool than earlier swimmers did. Finally Phelps apparently has that "feel for the water" that our illustrious coach at Indiana University, Doc Counsilman, talked about but could never quantify in his numerous physiology studies. That is to say, that Phelps appears to have the ability to perceive sensorially how to move his hands, feet, and body best through the water at maximum speed. His body is also durable. He is able to perform huge workouts without developing strains, sprains, and repetitive stress injuries.

Finally Phelps has the luxury of no distractions. He does not work outside the pool, does not go to school, is not married, and seems to have a good income stream. He seems to be able to tolerate his life well psychologically. Our only concern for his future is that he has an English bulldog for a pet. One of us (that would be Tyrrell) once had an English bulldog named Irving. It was such an emotional burden that he almost took early retirement from writing. That would have been thirty-five years ago. The Clintons were not that lucky.