An important part of American Swimming History: Michael Phelp’s 2004 Athens Olympics

Just as 1972 will be remembered as Mark Spitz’s Olympics, Athens 2004 will always be “Michael’s Games,” as the 19-year-old won six gold and eight medals overall, equaling the most ever medals won in a single Olympiad.

His face was everywhere you looked: on NBC’s endless promotions for the Games, swimming “laps” for VISA from Greece to the Statue of Libert and back (an idea possibly lifted from the Beatles’ movie, “Help”); on countless other print and TV ads; smiling at you from every conceivable page of every newspaper in the land; on the cover of SI, Time, Parade; and on and on.

He was everywhere!

It was impossible to escape. It didn’t matter if you switched channels on your TV, the local, national and international reporters would be talking about Michael. Turn on your radio and even the sports talk shows, whose hosts are only dimly aware of any sport beyond baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and golf, and it was all Michael. All the time. Not M.J., but M.P.

There was no escape.

The hype was shameless, expectations simply gargantuan. No, Spitzean. How many gold would Michael win? Seven, tying Mark Spitz’s mythic record of seven gold (and seven world records) at the ’72 Games, arguably the greatest feat in Olympic history? Eight? Nine?

In the water and out, young Michael Phelps, seemingly blissfully unaware of the burden placed upon his broad shoulders, remained himself, an extraordinary, once-in-a-generation talent who was also a respectful, hip, 19-year-old kid. A kid, just like a million other kids who was into video games, Eminem and his Escalade. He was no brash, trash-talking braggart.

It was refreshing.

The expectations were impossible and, though Michael did not quite meet them, he came ever so close. Close enough so that even the media, which had built him up and were slathering for an excuse to tear him down, even the media were impressed.

What’s more, America, and the rest of the world, took notice, if mainly because the timing was right. In the U.S., Americans were fed up with the egocentric, spoiled brats too many of our pro athletes have become, acting as though society’s rules were for everyone but them. On top of that, track and field, the traditional marquee sport of the Olympic Games, was mired in a drug scandal that shook the very foundation of the sport.

Where could the public look for genuine role models? Why, miracle of miracles. Here was Michael Phelps, a young man who personifies everything we’ve always said we’ve wanted in the way of role models for our kids.

And hey, guess what? He’s not the only one. There’s Aaron, Amanda, Natalie, J.T., “Ritz,” Brendan, Kaitlin, Ian, the Keller kids, the Kirk sisters and many more.

Not American? No problemo. There’s Hackie, Thorpie, Petria and Leisel if you’re Aussie. European? There’s Hoogie, Manaudou, Otylia, Dani, Yana, Komarova and Metella. Asian? Think Kitajima, Yamamoto, Shibata. African? How about Coventry, Mellouli and Iles?

Michael’s reflected light allowed our entire sport to sparkle and glow like the many-faceted diamond it is.

And what did Michael accomplish?

  • He won six gold medals, second only to Spitz
  • He won a total of eight medals, equaling the most ever won in a single Olympiad.
  • He won four individual gold medals, tying Spitz.
  • He set a world record in the 400 IM, and
  • He set five Olympic records, both IMs, both flys and the 800 free relay.

Not bad, kid.

But perhaps Michael’s most impressive moment took place out of the water, when the 19-year-old did something few other athletes of his caliber, or any caliber, would do. With one race left to go, he said “enough” and voluntarily gave up his spot on the U.S. medley relay team to his rival Ian Crocker, saying Crocker was the faster relay swimmer. (Crocker responded by swimming the fastest fly split in history.)

Just as 1972 will be remembered as Mark Spitz’s Olympics, the 28th Olympic Games will always be “Michael’s Games” (unless he surpasses himself in Olympiads to come, a distinct possibility).

But there were other feats of athletic virtuosity in Athens by swimmers not named Phelps. There were also the inevitable upsets and disappointments, as well as a few heated controversies.

Here’s a quick rundown of the highlights:

FEATS

  • Eight world records: women’s 100 free (Jodie Henry, 53.52), 400 medley relay (Australia, 3:57.32), 400 free relay (Australia, 3:35.94) and 800 free relay (USA, 7:53.42, beating the oldest record in the book, and erasing the last mark belonging to East Germany); men’s 100 back (Aaron Peirsol, 53.45), 400 IM (Michael Phelps, 4:08.26), 400 medley relay (USA, 3:30.68) and 400 free relay (South Africa, 3:13.17).
  • 19 Olympic records. Also 11 American, seven African, seven Asian, six Aussie and five European.
  • Phelps, with his eight medals, was not the only multi-medal winner. Natalie Coughlin had five (two gold); Ian Thorpe four (two gold); Petria Thomas four (three gold); Inge De Bruijn four (one gold). Thirteen other swimmers earned three medals, including Aaron Peirsol, who had three gold.
  • Jenny Thompson’s two medals gave her a career total of 12. That makes her the most decorated U.S. Olympian in history, in any sport! For perspective, Phelps was only 7 years old when J.T. won her first Olympic medal.
  • Yana Klochkova completed an unprecedented double double, winning both IMs in back-to-back Olympics.
  • Kirsty Coventry (Zimbabwe) and Otylia Jedrzejczak (Poland) won their respective country’s first-ever Olympic gold medals in swimming. George Bovell earned Trinidad’s first-ever Olympic medal.
  • Bright new stars emerged: Manaudou, Henry, Jedrzejczak, Coventry, Schoeman, Draganja, Jensen, Davies, Keller and Bovell.
  • Established superstars proved enduring: Thorpe, Hoogie, Hackett, Hall, Inky, Beard and Klochkova.

CONTROVERSIES

  • Phelps’ placement on the U.S. men’s 400 free relay generated tremendous discord. Gary Hall Jr. objected to being excluded after the No. 3 qualifier at the U.S. Trials failed to meet Coach Eddie Reese’s 48.5 criterion in the Olympic prelims (Neil Walker made it). Miffed, Hall left the Village for several days, visiting a neighboring island, then returned and won the 50. His outfit for the 50, red, white and blue boxing shorts and a flamboyant robe instead of the team uniform, resulted in his being fined $5,000 by USA Swimming.
  • Kosuke Kitajima’s undoubted dolphin kicks on the start and turn of his victorious 100 breaststroke, which did not lead to his disqualification.
  • Aaron Peirsol’s mysterious DQ and even more mysterious reinstatement after winning the 200 back.

DISAPPOINTMENTS

  • The farewell that fizzled for superstar Alex Popov when the Russian Rocket, double Olympic champion in the 50 and 100 free, and 2003 world champion, did not qualify for the finals.
  • The failure of the U.S. to place a swimmer in even the semifinals of the 100 free, the first time in 108 years (not counting the 1980 U.S. boycott) there’s been no American in the final of that event.

Here’s how it went, day-by-day:

Day One (Aug. 14)
Competition begins at the Olympic Aquatic Centre with questions on everybody’s mind. The answers are not long in coming.

Men’s 400 IM. Michael Phelps begins his quest for eight gold medals with a world record 4:08.26 in the 400 IM. Erik Vendt makes it a 1-2 U.S. sweep.

Men’s 400 Free. Ian Thorpe, who doesn’t fall off the blocks, repeats as Olympic champion in the 400 free. But this time it is far from a blow-out, as Grant Hackett and Klete Keller take the Thorpedo down to the very last stroke. Tune in again in 2008.

Women’s 400 IM. Despite an American record by Kaitlin Sandeno and a South American mark by Georgina Bardach of Argentina, no one can stop Yana Klochkova from becoming the first woman to win the 400 IM in two consecutive Olympiads.

Women’s 400 Free Relay. It is billed as Australia’s best women’s team since the days of Dawn Fraser. And the sheilas from Down Under live up to expectations, clocking a world record 3:35.94.

Day Two (Aug. 15)
Controversy erupts when SwimInfo.com reports that Michael Phelps will swim on the U.S. men’s 4 x 100 free relay, despite not having qualified for the event at Trials, unless two prelim swimmers split under 48.5. One swimmer does, Neil Walker, and he is added to the finals team. Veteran anchor Gary Hall Jr. swims 48.73 and, despite his protestations, is not added to the team swimming in the evening. Fuel is added to the fire when Phelps swims slower at night than Hall does in prelims.

Women’s 100 Fly. Inge De Bruijn fails to defend her title and finishes third behind Australia’s Petria Thomas, who takes her second gold, and Poland’s Otylia Jedrzejczak.

Men’s 100 Breast. Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima clocks 1:00.08 to upset world record holder Brendan Hansen of the USA. Controversy erupts over KK’s dolphin kick on his pullouts.

Women’s 400 Free. A star is born. France’s Laure Manaudou sets a Euro record of 4:05.34, third fastest all-time, with Poland’s Jedrzejczak second and the USA’s Kaitlin Sandeno a strong third.

Men’s 400 Free Relay. Roland Schoeman takes the lead at the start for South Africa, and the Springboks never look back, flying to victory with a WR 3:13.17. Hoogie’s 46.79 anchor split gives Holland the silver. Prior to Athens, the USA had an amazing unbeaten streak that began in Tokyo in 1964. This year’s third-place finish was its worst finish ever. The bronze means that, at best, Phelps can only tie Mark Spitz’s seven gold medals. “Only?”

Day Three (Aug. 16)
The mainstream media bill the 200 free as swimming’s “Battle of the Century” and the “Duel in the Pool.” The contestants: M.P. and the Thorpedo. Yo! What about Holland’s Hoogie, the defending Olympic champ?

Men’s 200 Free. Pieter van den Hoogenband, the Flying Dutchman, leads through 150 meters at under WR-pace. But he’s out too fast, and Ian Thorpe powers up those size-17s to overtake him and set an Olympic record 1:44.71. With the victory, Thorpe becomes the winningest Aussie gold medalist ever with five. Hoogie holds off Phelps for the second spot. Bye-bye seven gold.

Women’s 100 Back. Natalie Coughlin, the only woman to break a minute in this event, wins as expected in an Olympic record 1:00.37, but it ain’t easy. Nat just holds off a fast-closing Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe and France’s Manaudou. Coventry’s medal is her country’s first-ever Olympic swimming medal.

Men’s 100 Back. Aaron Peirsol takes command on the second lap and wins handily in 54.06. It’s the third straight Olympic title in this event for the U.S. Markus Rogan is second, giving Austria its first medal in the swimming pool since 1912. Japan’s Tomomi Morita beats out defending champ, Lenny Krayzelburg, for the bronze by 2-hundredths.

Women’s 100 Breast. This race should belong to Australia’s Leisel Jones, the top qualifier through the first two rounds. But the Lethal One falters just as she did in Barcelona, opening the door for China’s Luo Xuejuan, who captures the first gold medal for China in eight years with an Olympic record 1:06.64. Brooke Hanson edges teammate Jones for silver by 1-hundredth.

Day Four (Aug. 17)
Michael Phelps has swum three finals thus far and has a gold and two bronze medals to show for his efforts. The media are starting to turn sour on the kid, but he has two events tonight, two chances to “redeem” himself and get back on track.

Women’s 200 Free. This was anybody’s race, but “anybody” turns out to be Camelia Potec of Romania (1:58.03). Germany’s WR-holder, Franzi van Almsick, still seeking her first gold in four Olympiads, is fifth, and the USA’s Dana Vollmer sixth in a very tight finish.

Men’s 200 Fly. Michael Phelps flies to victory with an OR 1:54.04, the second-fastest time in history, just holding off Japan’s Takashi Yamamoto (1:54.56), who cuts into Mike’s lead on the final 50 with every stroke. Stephen Parry is a solid third, taking Britain’s first medal here.

Women’s 200 IM. Yana Klochkova completes an historic double double, taking the sprint medley in 2:11.14 and edging Amanda Beard (AR 2:11.70) for the gold. Coventry sets an African mark in placing third. Fifteen-year-old teen sensation Katie Hoff is seventh.

Men’s 800 Free Relay. The USA ends Australia’s seven-year dominance of the men’s 800 free relay, winning by 13-hundredths in an AR 7:07.33. Swimming precisely one hour after the 200 fly, Phelps leads off the relay by edging Hackett. Klete Keller, anchoring for the Stars and Stripes, holds off a furious assault by Ian Thorpe to take the gold. At the halfway point in the meet, Phelps’ medal haul stands at three gold and two bronze.

Day Five (Aug. 18)
Even Superman needs a day of rest. On Day Five, Michael has no finals, only the prelims and semis of the 200 IM. But there’s plenty of action at the Olympic pool, not the least of which is a perpetual dust storm. Still, the show must go on.

Men’s 200 Breast. Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima wins again, this time, without the dolphin kick, in an Olympic record 2:09.44. Hungary’s Dani Gyurta, just-turned 15, becomes the youngest male swimming medalist since 1932 by beating out the USA’s Brendan Hansen for silver. Dani, who began predicting at age 11 that he’d win gold in this event in Athens, confesses he’s happy with the silver. For now.

Women’s 200 Fly. Australia’s Petria Thomas, winner of the 100 fly, takes the 200 out well under WR pace and leads through the final turn. But WR-holder Otylia Jedrzejczak will not be denied. She comes storming from behind to nip her rival in 2:06.05, winning Poland’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in swimming.

Men’s 100 Free. The 100 free has already shattered many a dream before it is even swum. For starters, the U.S. fails to place a swimmer in the final, or even the semis, as both Jason Lezak and Ian Crocker do not make the top 16 in prelims. The last time that happened was in Athens in 1896. Then, in the semis, two-time Olympic champ and reigning world champion, Alex Popov of Russia, finishes ninth. Still, the race is hot, as Holland’s Pieter van den Hoogenband defends his Olympic crown, edging South Africa’s Schoeman, 48.17 to 48.23. Thorpe is third in a PR 48.56.

Women’s 800 Free Relay. Precisely 17 years earlier to the day, the women from the German Democratic Republic set a world record in this event at 7:55.47. Now it is the last remaining mark held by the chemically assisted East Germans. As Natalie Coughlin explains, “Before the race, we figured we only needed to average about 1:58.8, and I’m like, `We can do that!'” And, like, so they could. Nat leads off in 1:57.74, a time that would have won the 200, and her teammates take it from there. The USA touches in a WR 7:53.42, ahead of China and Germany.

Day Six (Aug. 19)
The U.S. is looking for a Big Day this day, and that’s just what it got, with gold medal performances in three of the day’s four finals. But one victory came packaged in controversy.

Women’s 200 Breast. Once again, the USA’s Amanda Beard goes head-to-head with her Aussie rival, Leisel Jones. It’s the current WR-holder versus the previous WR-holder, with each woman still looking for her first gold in Athens. The race follows a familiar pattern with Jones ahead for the first 195 meters. But once again, Beard’s finishing kick proves lethal to Leisel, and it is the American who is first to the wall in an OR 2:23.37. Beard now has a complete set of medals in this event: silver in 1996, bronze in 2000 and now gold.

Men’s 200 Back. In the 200 back, Aaron Peirsol is the proverbial 400-pound gorilla: a dominating presence, impossible to ignore. For good reason. In Athens, Peirsol simply destroys an outstanding field with a 1:54.95, history’s second-fastest time and an Olympic record. Then, the DQ. For what? FINA doesn’t really seem to know. Finally, an explanation: Peirsol is DQ’ed for kicking into the final turn after he’d turned onto his stomach to make the turn. Less than half an hour later, just in time for the awards ceremony, the DQ, made by a French judge, is overturned, with the grounds for reversal almost as mysterious as the original disqualification. The story may not be over yet: as we went to press, British and Austrian officials were filing a protest over the reversal.

Men’s 200 IM. The U.S. is already two-for-two on Day Six when the 200 IM is called to the starting blocks. In lane 4, Michael Phelps stands poised, ready to deliver gold medal No. 4. And that’s just what he does, racing to an Olympic record 1:57.14. Teammate Ryan Lochte makes it a 1-2 sweep for Uncle Sam, as he just touches out George Bovell by 2-hundredths in 1:58.78. Bovell’s bronze is the first-ever Olympic swimming medal for his native Trinidad.

Women’s 100 Free. The U.S. sweep ends abruptly when unheralded Jodie Henry, who had set a WR of 53.52 in the semis the night before, comes tearing back from fifth place at the turn to win in 53.84. Defending champ Inky De Bruijn is second (54.16), while the USA’s Natalie Coughlin finishes third (54.40). Kara Lynn Joyce places fifth (54.54).

Day Seven (Aug. 20)
This day features the men’s 100 fly. Michael is going for his fifth gold medal, and it won’t be easy. Standing in his way: Ian Crocker, the WR-holder who has beaten Michael in head-to-head battles the last two times they’ve raced, each time lowering the world record. But Crocker had been sick at this meet, and still is not fully recovered, so the race is up for grabs. It would be close, as all of the races would be this day.

Women’s 200 Back. Kirsty Coventry, the pride of Zimbabwe and Auburn University, must have figured: I’ve got silver and bronze; why not go after a complete set? Indeed, why not? Coventry goes for it from the start. Leading every stroke of the way, she takes the gold in 2:09.19.

Men’s 100 Fly. Here’s one event that lives up to the hype. Crocker, not quite completely recovered from the bug that had gotten him down earlier in the meet, splits 23.59 at the 50, 3-hundredths under his WR pace. He still leads 45 meters later, but mis-times his finish, allowing, you guessed it, a certain Mr. Michael Phelps to get his hand on the wall 4-hundredths of a second sooner, in 51.25, an Olympic record. Ukraine’s Andriy Serdinov is third in a Euro record 51.36.

Women’s 800 Free. This is a terrific race, with France’s 17-year-old phenom, Laure Manaudou, leading for the first 700 meters. But Japan’s Ai Shibata has a rendezvous with destiny, and the Japanese samurai takes the race in 8:24.54 to Manaudou’s 8:24.92. In the battle for third, the USA’s Diana Munz overtakes teammate Kalyn Keller on the last lap to snag the bronze.

Men’s 50 Free. “And, in lane 4, wearing the red, white and blue trunks, standing 6-5 and weighing 220 pounds, the defending Olympic champion, Gary Hall Jr.” Is it swimming or is it boxing? It’s hard to tell. Hall, at 29 the oldest U.S. male swimming Olympian since Duke Kahanamoku in 1924, is mad. Fighting mad. Left off the 400 free relay team, he has something to prove. And the iconoclastic icon does just that, by the narrowest of margins, 1-hundredth of a second. He repeats as Olympic champion! The next day, USA Swimming fines him $5,000 for not wearing the official USA uniform. Bad boy, bad boy. Day Eight (Aug. 21)
With one day to go, Michael Phelps withdraws from the medley relay, giving his spot to Ian Crocker, saying Crocker can do a better job in the relay. It is a rare act of team play and selflessness, and speaks volumes about the kind of human being Michael Phelps is. As a prelim swimmer, Phelps will still get whatever medal the relay team wins in the final. Surprise! They get gold, and Mike ends up with eight medals, six gold and two bronze.

Women’s 50 Free. Inge De Bruijn is back to basics. Third in the 100 fly, second in the 100 free, she’s ready to go a pure sprint: the 50 free. Here, all that matters is no-holds-barred speed, and she’s got that aplenty. Inky explodes from the block and immediately the battle is for silver, the 31-year-old Dutchwoman has first place sewed up in 24.56. France’s Malia Metella is second in 24.89, 2-hundredths in front of Aussie Libby Lenton. Kara Lynn Joyce goes a PR 25.00 for fifth.

Men’s 1500 Free. Grant Hackett defends his Olympic title, remains undefeated for more than seven years and eases under the Olympic record with a 14:43.40 for the metric mile. But it is the toughest race of his life, one that tears off the mystique enshrouding this event. Grant has to work for this one, hard. And the winner is in doubt until the final few strokes. Finishing right behind Hackett are teenagers Larsen Jensen of the USA and David Davies of Britain, now the Nos. 3 and 4 performers of all-time.

Women’s 400 Medley Relay. Another USA vs. Australia battle, this one appears at the halfway mark to be gift-wrapped for the Yanks. But Petria Thomas uncorks history’s fastest 100 fly split, 56.67, blows Jenny Thompson out of the water, and hands her anchor, Jodie Henry, a lead for the final two laps. Henry does her thing, splitting 52.97, and the Aussies set a WR 3:57.32. The U.S. is second in 3:59.12. The silver medal gives J.T. a total of 12 Olympic medals, making her the most decorated American Olympian in any sport.

Men’s 400 Medley Relay. Ever since 1960, when the medley relay became part of the Olympic program, the USA men have struck gold in this event. Not only that, but each time they’ve broken the world record. The 2004 team intends to keep those streaks alive. Aaron Peirsol gets it going by leading off in a world record 53.45, taking down Lenny the K’s 1999 100 backstroke mark, the oldest men’s mark in the book. Hansen follows in 59.37 for the breaststroke, Crocker contributes history’s fastest 100 fly split, 50.28, and Lezak brings it home in 47.58. That, my friends, adds up to 3:30.68, and a spanking-new world record. The streak lives on!

The Expectations Game
Before the matter was settled in the pool, there were expectations about how the different nations of the world would fare in Athens. Some surpassed expectations, some met them and some bombed.