League Of Olympic Swim Legends: Michael Phelps Tops 200m Butterfly Podium With Spitz & Gross

Michael Phelps - Photo Courtesy: SwimSketch

What would have unfolded had Tokyo 2020 gone ahead as planned this week – and where would it all have fit in the thread of Olympic swim legends and pioneers like Michael Phelps, Mark Spitz and Michael GrossTo mark the eight days over which the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games would have unfolded had the coronavirus pandemic not forced postponement, the team at Swimming World is filling the void with a Virtual Vision Form Guide and League of Olympic Swimming Legends.

Day 4, event 2 – A 1-2 Punch From the two G.O.A.T.s of Olympic Medal Counts


Michael Phelps – Photo Courtesy: Paul Younan

Men’s 200m Butterfly

The Podium

  1. Michael Phelps (USA)
  2. Mark Spitz (USA)
  3. Michael Gross (FRG)

The Other Finalists (Listed Alphabetically):

  • Kevin Berry (AUS)
  • Mike Bruner (NED)
  • Tom Malchow (USA)
  • Carl Robie (USA)
  • Mike Troy (USA)
  •  Our Lane 9* place, with a nod to Craig Beardsley and the wound of boycott,  goes to the only man who claimed gold in a World record who is not already among our top 8, his 1988 victory reverberating yet (and who wouldn’t want to see him and Gross race once more…):
  • Jon Sieben (AUS)

* – in our series, we will use Lane 9 to add an athlete whose story reflects extraordinary situations of different kinds, including being deprived by doping or political decisions or, indeed the program, as well as simple facts such as “he/she was the only other title winner who claimed gold in a WR but didn’t make out top 8 on points”

All-Time Battle Of Olympic Swim Legends Goes To Michael Phelps

Mark Spitz – bronze at Mexico followed by Munich Gold, as one win among a record seven – Photo Courtesy: ISHOF


Michael Gross – Photo Courtesy: Michael Gross (video still)

Was there any doubt. No ?-mark required. Tautological. The superlatives surrounding Michael Phelps in the 200 butterfly are seemingly endless. After finishing fifth in the 2000 Sydney final as a 15-year-old, Phelps went on to capture back-to-back titles in 2004 and 2008, the latter crown in world-record time while racing somewhat blind due to a goggles malfunction on his dive, the skill of ploughing on regardless honed in him by coach Bob Bowman, who once stepped on his pupil’s goggles deliberately with a view to teaching him how to overcome, how to make sure that circumstances would not keep him from his mission and target (see 2016 review below).

Although Phelps earned silver to South Africa’s Chad Le Clos in 2012, he regained his throne in his Olympic hurrah in 2016. Phelps set eight world records in the event during his career, marks that spanned 18 years until Hungarian Kristof Milak took the standard at last summer’s World Championships in Gwangju.

Racing to the silver medal behind Phelps was Mark Spitz, the man Phelps surpassed as the most-decorated Olympian in a single Games. Spitz rebounded from a stunning eighth-place finish at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City to win gold in world-record time at the 1972 Games in Munich. That victory was part of Spitz’s seven-gold performance. Spitz’s seven world records stretched between 1967-1972.

Rounding out the podium is West Germany’s Michael Gross, the 1988 Olympic champ and 1984 silver medalist. Gross would have contended in 1980, too, but West Germany participated in the boycott of the Moscow Games. Gross set four world records during his career, a bonus that helped him fend off Australian Kevin Berry and American Carl Robie for the bronze medal.

Michael Phelps and Bob Bowman – an early look at how they approached training on ‘fly


The Last Victory Of Michael Phelps Over 200m butterfly


Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

2016 Rio de Janeiro: Athletes, 29; Nations, 21

  1. 1:53.36 Michael Phelps USA
  2. 1:53.40 Masato Sakai JPN
  3. 1:53.62 Tamás Kenderesi HUN
  4. 1:54.06 Chad le Clos  RSA
  5. 1:54.82 Daiya Seto JPN
  6. 1:55.64 Viktor Bromer DEN
  7. 1:56.24 László Cseh HUN
  8. 1:57.04 Louis Croenen BEL

Date of Final: August 9, 2016

Contemporary Report of Craig Lord – Rio de Janeiro, August 9, 2016

Just to be able to see the No 1 next to my name again in the 200 ‘fly, one more time: couldn’t have been scripted any better.

So spoke Michael Phelps, through beaming smile just beyond the first hour of taking repossession of the Olympic title he first won in 2004 and regained in 2008.

He lost it in 2012 and that “lives with me still”. It no longer stings, no longer draws him to the flame, no longer niggles and nudges back to a place he’d once walked out on.

Here in Rio today, Michael Phelps was not only able to say he was finishing his Olympic career in the way he wanted to but in the manner of his chosing, too, in the signature event that had called him back to the water as diviner destined to alter the future because he cannot change the past.

Phelps and coach Bob Bowman took to meeting for lunch once in a while in the time beyond his first career, when goggles were off, golf was on. It was at one of those lunches that Phelps raised ‘comeback’ buit that was not all. He said here tonight:

“I told Bob when I came back how bad I wanted that 200 ‘fly. I came in on a mission and that mission was accomplished.”

This was the rematch, the revenge indeed, we thought we would never see. Four years ago, it was Chad Le Clos (RSA) 1:52.96, Michael Phelps (USA), the 2004 and 2008 champion, 1:53.01. Four Games, a record in itself: a fifth place, two golds and a silver. But no cigar at the fading of the lights. And that in the signature event that meant so much: the one that delivered his first Olympic final at 15 in Sydney; the one that delivered his first world record a year later; his baby.

The GOAT was gone. Off to his vault to count the 22 and the 18 golden ones. But it doesn’t take long to count to 22 and polishing stuff in between rounds of golf isn’t much fun – so back he came. And by the time he arrived in Rio his baby was a boy called Boomer, up in the arms of mum Nicole Johnson in a seat next to the woman who’d seen ’em all, mum Debbie Phelps, now grandma, too. Boomer Bob.

All change. Dad was even wearing his own brand of kit, MP, this time round.

Boomer Bob can’t read the writing on the end wall nor dad’s cap yet but must have heard the roar. Maybe on a quiet day sometime when he’s older he might listen to dad describe it and dream he might have heard it too.


  1. 1:53.36 Michael Phelps (USA) Gold
  2. 1:53.40 Masato Sakai (JPN) Silver
  3. 1:53.62 Tamas Kenderesi (HUN) Bronze
  4. 1:54.06 Chad Le Clos (RSA) – Never. Poke. A. Stick. At. The. Tiger. Never. But, Never, Ever.

In victory Phelps became the oldest Olympic swimming champion in history in a solo event. It was 1920 in Antwerp when the father of surfing Duke Kahanamoku, of Hawaii, set a world record for Olympic gold in the 100m freestyle to celebrate his 30th birthday. Phelps turned 31 on June 30.

On the podium, joy, laughter, relief and tears. The job was done. Business was no longer unfinished. The new business was all about hugs and kisses and tiny fingers and toes. Nicole Johnson handed Boomer over the barrier for a hug with dad, the rub of cherubic cheek the very best feeling in the world.

The Last Signature

Phelps, the first swimmer ever to race in final (and make the podium) at five Olympic Games in swimming, had the race largely in his control and grasp largely all the way. His last turn was a shocker, his finish was a desperate lunge of thirtysomething fury but here was a man drawing from the depths of experience, passion and the power of pain.

Michael PHELPS of the United States of America (USA) competes in the men's 200m Butterfly Heats

Michael Phelps – by Patrick B. Kraemer

As he drove off the last wall, Phelps looked strong, flowing, in his element, flatlining and seemingly fatigue free. For all but the last 7m, the most decorated Olympian of all-time looked certain to claim gold No 20, Medal No 24. You could almost hear the heavenly removal men shouting from above: watch out, piano on the way as Phelps took what are likely to be the last few strokes of his career in his signature event.

But he hung on, even a jab and stab of a finish unable to uncouple him from his destiny: the prize was back with Phelps. reclaimed, returned to the home of the Baltimore Bullet.

Le Clos was first to have his shirt off. Then Phelps, then Tamas Kenderesi, 19, and his 30-year-old teammate, World champion Laszlo Cseh. They got set. All settled. “Stand down please” said the starter. The crowd Oooed and Ahhed. The air crackled with tension.

Second time, they were off and it was Le Clos who got the best start. Momentum was something else. By the first turn Phelps held sway among those heading for the top end of the result. At half-way, he had the edge on Le Clos. Would the South African shadow him once again and pounce at the last stroke?

A lap later, it seemed not: Phelps powered to the last turn, mistimed it, found himself too crunched but able to use the moment for recoil, restructure on his way to a redefining moment among many defining ones. He headed for home with a second lead on Kenderesi and Sakai Masato, Le Clos the closest at a gap of 0.67sec.

Could the GOAT, at 31, really hang on? Could the youngest man in the race fight back? What did Le Clos have left? Yes, Yes  but not enough and not enough completed the puzzle.

The ebb and flow:

  • 24.85; 53.35; 1:22.68; 1:53.36 Phelps
  • 25.37; 54.35; 1:23.73; 1:53.40 Sakai
  • 25.42; 54.18; 1:23.61; 1:53.62 Kenderesi
  • 25.06; 53.87; 1:23.35; 1:54.06 Le Clos
Michael PHELPS of the United States of America (USA) celebrates after winning in the men's 200m Butterfly Final

Michael Phelps by PBK

Daiya Seto (JPN), 1:54.82, Viktor Bromer (DEN),  1:55.64, then World champion Laszlo Cseh (HUN), top of the world rankings still with his 1:52.91 from London 2016 Europeans in London back in May but on 1:56.24 today, with Louis Croenen (BEL) the last man home able to tell his grandchildren open day that he raced there with the American in his last 200m butterfly race.

Phelps looked as though he had never devoured and savoured a victory with quite as much relish. Maturity showed its face. There was no wild pumping of fists, no screaming. Just a cool, calm, collected hop on the lane rope, a stare down the pool, a smile up at the family, two arms raised steadily aloft – and then the gesture that said it all.

Phelps curled his fingers and cupped them in that small motion that says: come on, bring it to me. He’d brought it to us, all of us: the greatest of the greatest show on earth when free of the taint Phelps has asked the IOC to get shut of with lifetime bans for those who intend to steal the show by ruining it.

The 4x200m freestyle at the end of the session delivered career gold No 21 and medal No 25. In a press conference just ended, Phelps said:

“I was talking to Bob the other night and one of the things that’s really sticking in my head is ‘that’s a lot of medals – we’ve got a lot of medals. It’s insane. It’s mind-blowing, even to me.”

Poking The Tiger – Don’t Try This At Home Folks

Michael PHELPS of the United States of America (USA) prepares himself before competing in the men's 200m Butterfly Heats

Michael Phelps by Patrick B. Kraemer

It has to be assumed that Chad Le Clos has seen at least one version of Jungle Book; he might even have read it. There’s a tiger in it – Shere Khan, a big predator to be treated with respect; not a creature you want to poke a stick at.

Flick the ending from ‘Tiger gets tail burnt’ to ‘Tiger eats Boy’ and we can stretch to Michael Phelps as the personification of Kipling’s creation.

You would not imagine that anyone, Chad included, would have wanted to poke a stick at Phelps, what with that history of Milorad Cavic in 2008-09 and way back beyond that Don Talbot in 2003 having played down suggestions that we might be looking at a particularly big beast in Phelps.

As Phelps poked his head through a curtain stage left and folk started to wonder whether he might be a boy fit to grab Ian Thorpe’s headline-grabbing power away, Talbot told Nicole Jeffery of The Australian: “Well, he hasn’t achieved anything yet.”

Phelps slapped a poster of Thorpe on his wall and stared it down every day until its use was done, Thorpe reminding the American who was boss of the 200m freestyle at Athens 2004; Phelps taking his World record with a magnificent swim in 2007 but the moment passed when that might (or might not) have meant victory over the Thunder from Down Under. It wasn’t personal but it was part of the play of ages in a game reserved for outer-orbiters.

We hadn’t ever really caught a glimpse of Phelps’ face at the specific moment when fuel reached his ear.  We have now: you could almost hear the rest of the jungle whispering intently:  “No Chad, don’t do it!” as the video of a call-room incident hit the net.

Phelps in the blue corner, focussed, Le Clos shadow boxing nearby after silver in the 200m free as the first clean man home deprived of the prize that should have been his. Outside the circle of such achievements, it is not easy to see the depth of emotional energy and investment made in pursuit of excellence beyond the excellence of the excellent.

On camera it appeared that the reigning 200 ‘fly champion walked over to stare Phelps down, shake a leg at him, so to speak. The wounded warrior avoided eye contact, his face set in thunder-and-lighting mode, jaw clenched, a grimace what we could see of the grind and drive to come.

The tiger had just made himself that touch hungrier. We’d seen what fuel can feed before.

With Cavic it was ‘put the full 100% shiny suit on and tell your sponsor Speedo to catch up like you’re gonna have to catch up with me’. Not quite those words but that was the gist of it. What followed was a gladiatorial response in a 50& LZR Racer: rippling below 50sec, he put Cavic’s taunt back in its box, the Serbian taking silver and achieving his goal of bringing to the pool something of that rumble in the jungle.

Talbot, the former Aussie head coach, once said that the key to greatness is longevity. There are arguments to the contrary: hard to argue that Shane Gould is not one of the greatest women swimmers we have ever seen, if not the greatest freestyler and the greatest freestyler ever to win Olympic medley gold.

And that leads us to the obvious conclusion about Phelps – he is unique, in that he joined the elite club of folk of the calibre of Gould, Spitz, Matthes, Gross, Biondi, Egerszegi and so on, and then shot into outer orbit beyond them and the greatest of Olympic greats on many counts and across all sports. He had and has the shorter-term and the longer-term wow factor, as it turned out.

A year after adding 8 gold medals for an Olympic tally of 14, retirement may have beckoned. Not for Phelps.  The tally grew to 18 in 22 at London 2012: he’d come back for more – and made it count, every stroke of the way – and, yes, a road with challenge and lost motivation and a touch of leaving the rails in the mix.

Bowman played a pivotal and masterful role, one that some day when the world has changed further in the direction of travel may be cited by those lacking in knowledge of performance sport and ask ‘what!?’.  To those who want to keep on winning at the very highest level, to any who want to match those 23 golds in 28 podium visits, sometime in a century beyond my lifetime, the Phelps-Bowman partnership will serve as a guide to how it might be done.

Bob Bowman's Golden Rules, out in May, were forged in the water but transcend swimming and sport - this is a book for all seasons - main image by Patrick B. Kraemer

Bob Bowman’s Golden Rules, out in May, were forged in the water but transcend swimming and sport – this is a book for all seasons – main image by Patrick B. Kraemer

In May this year, Bowman brought out the book that outlines the Golden Rules that made it possible. A colleague beyond swimming asked ‘a bit boring isn’t it’. His lessons in treasure hunting were ahead of him.

Which Shelf in The Michael Phelps Pantheon?

I ask at the press conference: and where did it all fit in the Pantheon on outer orbit? Says Phelps:

“Honestly, I don’t know at this very moment where that stands. It’s kind of been a crazy last couple of days. I know that that was probably one of my most challenging doubles that I’ve done, for sure.”

He pauses, reflects and adds: “That being my very first Olympic event, to be able to win it at my fifth Olympics; it’s pretty special. That race came so far from trials. I go 1:54.8; last lap 31.9, at trials…” Let’s just check that, John Lohn, I ask of my colleague in the know with a book at hand … “On the nose,” says John.

Should have known: as a young teen Phelps could spot the pace of a split at half a mile and has known his numbers ever since.

Today, he clocked 30.68 down the last lap, including the last seven metres of gathering death. Phelps said it felt more like 10m. “The last 10m, oh … my … gosh: I thought I was standing still.”

He wasn’t – and he’d done enough, at the hour and in the weeks since trials on camp since that 31.9 at trials. “The kind of work we’ve been able to do to have tonight’s race work out I’m just … thankful, that’s for sure. I wanted that one back.”

Michael PHELPS of the United States of America (USA) cheers for his teammate after swimming the second leg in the men's 4x100m Freestyle Relay Final

Michael Phelps  by Patrick B. Kraemer

Bob Bowman was just as enthusiastic: “It’s remarkable. You know, given not just his age but everything that’s transpired since London and before London and the whole totality of that.

“Tonight that 200m ‘fly was really great. I mean, somebody asked me where that ranks and I ranked it number two. His first one will always be my favourite, and by that I mean his first 200m ‘fly medal not his first race, but that one was definitely number two.”

Why No2? “Just emotionally and the way he raced. Everything he had was in there. That was it. Right there. He was able to focus under a lot of pressure and get it done.”

And all because he really wanted it:

“That being my very first Olympic event, to be able to win it at my fifth Olympics; it’s pretty special.”

Phelps came close to breaking down a few times on the podium. What had been going through his mind?

“It was really just going through the last 16 years. I mean. That was like my bread and butter. That was the last time I’ll ever swim it. Having that come to an end, it’s weird and crazy to think about. It was kind of like going into the 100 ‘fly at trials. I didn’t say anything to anybody but there wasn’t a shot in hell I was going to lose that tonight and if I did every ounce was going to be left in the pool.”

He followed “I honestly didn’t know that I’d only won by a couple of hundredths until the medals ceremony” with a burst of laughter.

“I was talking to Bob the other night and one of the things that’s really sticking in my head is ‘that’s a lot of medals – we’ve got a lot of medals. It’s insane. It’s mind-blowing, even to me. To think about when this all started and the things we’ve been able to do together in the sport, it’s just special.”

Michael PHELPS of the United States of America (USA) looks to the video screen after competing in the men's 200m Butterfly Heats

Michael Phelps by Patrick B. Kraemer

Nicole Johnson with Boomer and Debbie Phelps, front row - by Patrick B. Kraemer

Nicole Johnson with Boomer and Debbie Phelps, front row – by Patrick B. Kraemer

After London 2012 and losing the race to Le Clos, Phelps could not get the race out of his head. How could he have lost it?

“I was pretty fired up after that race. Having the 2012 200 ‘fly; once I watched it (back) it kind of stuck with me and this was the race I really wanted tonight. I really wanted that one back.”

It hadn’t gone entirely smoothly but it had gone the way it should given that No1 by his name. He said: “There were a couple of things I thing going into the finish. I said to Bob if I have to take a half-stroke I’m taking a half-stroke … it was the same thing in 2008: I thought that cost me the race but it won me the race. I don’t care about the time, I just care about the win.”

Asked about his relationship with Le Clos, Phelps said: “Obviously we’re competitors. I don’t want him to win and I’m sure he doesn’t want me to win. But I’ll say that he is someone who is a very good racer and he’s not afraid of putting it on the line. You watched him do that in the 200 free last night. The kid’s got talent.

“We haven’t spoken much here. That was the first time – after the race. Kind of what happened four years ago stuck with me. It’s still with me. It’s good for the sport to have a competitor like that and to race in multiple events, not just the 200 ‘fly.

Then the eye of the tiger flickers a touch: “I knew exactly where he was for most of the race. Going into the last wall, as soon as I saw where he was I was like ‘perfect’.”

Following the ‘fly final with the medley relay was the most challenging aspect of the day. Said Phelps: “Doing the double was a lot harder than it once was, that’s for sure. That was a challenging one tonight.”

On whether he was worried about whether Phelps could stack up after the 200m butterfly final, coach Bowman said:

“I’m always worried. He was very tired. The good news is he’s done that now four times so he knows how to do it but it’s always scary because he doesn’t have enough time to swim down and then he has to do the medal ceremony and then go right to the blocks without ever swimming again so there’s a lot that goes into that hour. He does get in the water but right after the 200m fly for about 15 minutes.”

I’m looking forward to the rest of the week and I’m not even half-way done yet. I did the math and it’s a maximum of seven races to go. We’ve got our work cut out. Tomorrow’s going to be fun.”

US NBA players attending the swimming finalspicture is not editedAsk our americans to id them ;-)

USA basketball team members came to support Phelps – by Patrick B. Kraemer

Nicole Johnson, the wife of Michael PHELPS of the United States of America (USA), and their son Boomer attend the heats session

Nicole Johnson and Boomer, by PBK

He’d had fun, amidst the tears, on the podium, too. As the Star Spangled Banner started up, Phelps heard an exaggerated O as “Oh, say can you see…” and burst into laughter. He explained:

“I have a couple of friends from New York and a couple from Baltimore here and three of those friends were together. If you know what the Baltimore Orioles do during the National Anthem, they scream ‘O’. And I heard that and I knew exactly who it was. There’s only one person in the stands who I know is here who would do that. I looked over and I could not stop laughing. I can’t thank those guys enough to come down and support me. It means alot to have people close to Nicole [Johnson] and I down here for my last Olympics.”

Last Olympics. He sounded like he might, this time, stick to that, though you might have easily said that last time out. Circumstance has changed, of course, and there are other precious things in this world now. Like Boomer Bob. Said dad:

“I wanted to hold him longer but I have facetime with him every night. It’s good to see he was awake; he’s usually asleep all the time.”

The world will be awake to the achievements of his father forever more.

2020 Note: he stuck to it. His new precious things summed up by his self-description on Twitter:

Husband to @MrsNicolePhelps / Dad to Boomer, Beckett, Maverick / Pet Dad to Juno & Legend / Water Safety & Mental Health Advocate / Gold Medalist”

23 of the Olympic kind … ssssshhhh!

Michael Phelps – the 2008 Final Recalled:

Another Great Olympic 200m Butterfly Final

When Mark Spitz  Rattled the 2-minute mark in a League of his own

1972 Munich – Men 200m Butterfly

Date: 26-08/11-09-1972     Athletes: 29     Nations: 20

2:00.70wr Mark Spitz USA
2:02.86 Gary Hall USA
2:03.23 Robin Backhaus USA
2:04.60 Jorge Delgado ECU
2:04.69 Hans-Joachim Fassnacht FRG
2:04.69 Andras Hargitay HUN
2:05.34 Hartmut Floeckner GDR
2:05.57 Folkert Meeuw FRG

Date of final: August 28, 1972

Mark Spitz (USA) had ended his 1968 Olympic campaign by finishing last in the final of the 200m butterfly, nearly 8secs down on his world record. Poignant was the moment in Munich four years later when he began his next Olympic campaign in the 200m butterfly. No mistakes this time. Not one: seven times of asking: seven golds.

Spitz was a different man in 1972: world-record holder in the 100m, 200m freestyle and the 100m and 200m butterfly, his potential to win seven gold medals was clear but this time there was no pre-Games boasting as there had been from the teenager after he had won five gold medals at the 1967 Pan American Games.

The first heat saw Gary Hall (USA) set an Olympic record of 2:03.70. In the second heat, his teammate Robin Backhaus clocked 2:03.11 before Spitz started to make amends for 1968 with a 2:02.11 in the fourth heat, just 0.58sec outside his own world record.

As Mark Spitz rose to his blocks in the final, the ghost that needed exorcising rose within him. Four laps later, the spectre was dead and buried beneath a 2:00.70 World record that came off splits of 27.12, 57.79 and 1:28.90. The psychological baggage of 1968 offloaded, Spitz was free to pursue his next six gold medals knowing that he had what it took to be a winner on the biggest of occasions.

Behind him in the 200m final, Backhaus was closest at the halfway mark, on 58.52, with Hall third in 59.10. By the last turn, Hall, on 1:30.57, was now just 0.24sec behind Backhaus. On the way home, the medley world record holder got the edge on his teammate and claimed silver in 2:02.86, 0.37sec up on Backhaus.

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2 years ago

Michael Gross has to be silver, he has two medals and 1980 contender, Spitz just one

2 years ago
Reply to  Anonymous

Not so … the points, as stated, are for Olympic medals, world records and the longevity of records (years WR held) … Spitz set nine World records and held the WR for 9 years.