Great Races: Michael Phelps and Erik Vendt’s WR Duel in 400 IM

Michael Phelps broke his first world record in the 400 IM 17-plus years ago. Photo Courtesy: George Olsen / Swimming World Archive

Michael Phelps vs. Erik Vendt (400 Individual Medley; 2002 Nationals)

Every now and again, Swimming World will offer flashbacks of some great events from the past, including the showdown when Michael Phelps and Erik Vendt both dipped under the world record in the 400 individual medley at the 2002 United States Nationals in Fort Lauderdale, home of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.


Michael Phelps celebrates. Photo Courtesy: George Olsen / Swimming World Archive

This was Phelps’ first time breaking the world record in the 400 IM and the second world record of his career. He was 17.

He swam a 4:11.09 to get under Tom Dolan’s 4:11.76 from the 2000 Olympic Games. Vendt was second, also getting under the record with a 4:11.27.

Phelps would go on to break the 400 IM record seven more times in his career. To this day, he has held on to the standard in that event since initially breaking it. It now stands at a 4:03.84, set at the 2008 Olympic Games.

“I knew it would come down to the last stroke,” Phelps told Swimming World at the time, “that whoever got his hand on the wall first would have the world record. And I hate to lose. I just hate to lose.”

Vendt’s comments were similar. “I knew whoever won the race would get the world record,” Vendt said at the time. “This was the best race ever, and I’m happy to have done my best time by over two seconds.”

“We bring out the best in each other,” Phelps said.

Phelps and Vendt went on to go 1-2 at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens two years later.

Race Results

  1. Michael Phelps, 4:11.09
  2. Erik Vendt, 4:11.27
  3. Tom Wilkens, 4:17.05
  4. Kevin Clements, 4:18.59
  5. Robert Margalis, 4:20.62
  6. Brendan Neligan, 4:22.85
  7. Eric Shanteau, 4:24.23
  8. Eric Donnelly, 4:24.28

Swimming World’s Phillip Whitten wrote at the time:

This was the one everyone was waiting for. This was the race about which Michael Phelps said yesterday: “Erik and I have something special for you tomorrow.” And as they left the ready room, the two good friends and rivals turned to each other and said: “Let’s give them something to cheer about.”

They did. In spades. But strangely, the hush of anticipation extended through the first 100 meters, the crowd seemingly holding its collective breath. When Phelps hit the wall at 55.97, the crowd erupted, and the cheering just grew louder.

Vendt finished his fly leg in 58.57 – right where he wanted to be.

As expected, Phelps extended his lead by almost a second in the backstroke, turning in a mind-boggling 1:59.38. In 1964, Don Schollander became the first man to break two minutes for 200 meters freestyle, going on to win four gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics and becoming the most popular athlete of the ’64 Games. And here was Phelps, swimming 1:59 for 100 meters of fly and backstroke…on his way to a 400 IM.

But Vendt is nothing if not one of the toughest competitors on the planet. And he came storming back, splitting an incredible 1:10.87 and picking up three seconds on Phelps in breaststroke as the capacity crowd was on its feet, screaming.

And Vendt wasn’t done. On the first 50 meters of the freestyle leg, Vendt actually took the lead from Phelps, turning at 350 meters with a lead of 14-hundredths of a second.

But Michael was far from through. He pushed off the wall, doing six quick underwater dolphin kicks, and was back in front. With 25 meters to go, Erik had hauled his rival in, once again, and retaken a tiny lead. “I though I had it then,” Vendt said later. So did much of the crowd.

That’s when Phelps dug deeper and inched ahead. The two men surged for the wall, and it was the 17 year-old phenom who hit the pads first.

The crowd erupted…and the cheering went on and on.

World Record Progression (last 15 records)

  • 4:17.41, Alex Baumann, CAN (1984)
  • 4:16.12, David Wharton, USA (1987)
  • 4:15.42, Tamas Darnyi, HUN (1987)
  • 4:14.75, Tamas Darnyi, HUN (1988)
  • 4:12.36, Tamas Darnyi, HUN (1991)
  • 4:12.30, Tom Dolan, USA (1994)
  • 4:11.76, Tom Dolan, USA (2000)
  • 4:11.09, Michael Phelps, USA (2002)
  • 4:10.73, Michael Phelps, USA (2003)
  • 4:09.09, Michael Phelps, USA (2003)
  • 4:08.41, Michael Phelps, USA (2004)
  • 4:08.26, Michael Phelps, USA (2004)
  • 4:06.22, Michael Phelps, USA (2007)
  • 4:05.25, Michael Phelps, USA (2008)
  • 4:03.84, Michael Phelps, USA (2008)
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Stephen Paul
4 years ago

crazy this was the day Phelps first earned the world record which he would lower several times until the Beijing Olympics to a 4:03 where the record sits today. his only remaining world record ?

Michele Miller-Farina
4 years ago

Never gets old!

Laura Voet
4 years ago

Faster In Fort Lauderdale! ?????

Patsy Patterson Martin

The best thing about a race like this , the person that is just there, is pushing you beyond your self. If Micheal didn’t have Erik he wouldn’t have gone so fast. I look for people that help me swim faster. NO KIDS. I just do better when I have someone to swim against.

Apoorva Shrivastava
4 years ago

Proma Mitra ???

Gabriela Perezcortes
4 years ago

Lix AG

Lix AG
4 years ago

Gabriela Perezcortes enséñame

Todd Emerson
4 years ago

I love these memories! Please keep this going ??

Tucker Rivera
4 years ago

Love this love Phelps, and I’m glad he worked on his backstroke turns lol

Dan ross
Dan ross
4 years ago

I remember being there fort lauderdale wasnt the fastest pool back then but the energy at that place especially at night was amazing. Without vendt Phelps doesnt ho that fast but that last under h20 dolphin was amazing and I’ll bet Bob Bowman made a mental note that day for the future.

2 years ago

What is that, a 3 1/2 ft pool they dove into? Crazy fast time with so many of today’s built in disadvantages. Head to head and youth is what propelled those two legends..

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