Ranking the 20-Greatest Swims of Michael Phelps’ Career (Videos)

Bob Bowman with Michael Phelps at Rio 2016 - Photo Courtesy: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

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Anytime an Olympic Games nears, discussion of Michael Phelps and his legendary status is part of the equation. He is, after all, the barometer for Olympic excellence. So, Swimming World is running this piece from the archive that identifies the greatest performances from Phelps’ career. Phelps’ longtime coach, Bob Bowman, helped in the selection of these efforts, which made perfect sense since he guided Phelps from his pre-teen years through retirement.

Twenty-four years. It’s hard to believe that much time has passed since a 15-year-old Michael Phelps introduced himself to the world in 2000, first at the United States Olympic Trials in Indianapolis, and then at the Olympic Games in Sydney. His outings in the 200-meter butterfly lifted the lid on a spectacular career, one unmatched in Olympic lore and one that ranks among the finest in all sports.

In Australia, Phelps was one of six teenagers on the Team USA men’s roster and that group, which we have dubbed The Sydney Six, defined an era in American swimming. Phelps turned out to be the headliner of that entourage. The final totals over five Olympiads are staggering: 28 medals, including 23 of the golden variety. In Beijing, he posted the Great Eight, otherwise known as eight gold medals in as many events, with seven world records adding flair.

It has long been commonplace in the sports world to rank athletes and achievements. The process makes for good debate – in the stands, at the bar or, practically anywhere, as long as a raised voice is acceptable. Hey, these things can get heated and intense, and no one involved in such arguments wants to back down.

So, in conjunction with Phelps’ breakout campaign and the upcoming Olympics in Paris, Swimming World is offering up the 20 most-defining moments of his career. But we didn’t make the decisions of which event ranked No. 1 and which closed out the list at No. 20. Instead, we sought out the assistance of the person who knows Phelps’ athletic career better than anyone.


Photo Courtesy: Baltimore Sun

Phelps wasn’t yet a teen when coach Bob Bowman started working with him at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. However, he quickly identified a special gift in his protégé and foresaw success on the biggest stage. He also has a unique gift for easily recalling a multitude of moments in Phelps’ career, and this grasp of history was especially helpful as Bowman ranked the GOAT’s best performances.

“It’s strange,” said Bowman, who ran his choices by Phelps. “I see Michael every day as a man with three kids, a wife and a house. To think back to 2000, it’s crazy. There was no social media and I think he had given one interview before Indianapolis (site of the Olympic Trials) to Paul McMullen (of the Baltimore Sun). We toiled in obscurity and it was wonderful. It was a joyful time. It was just a pure love of what we were doing.”

Bowman was supremely generous with his time for this endeavor, which wasn’t simply a ranking of Phelps’ best efforts from a performance standpoint. Rather, we discussed with Bowman, now the head coach at the University of Texas, races that were both epic in their performance and meaning, and how those two ingredients constitute a moment.

Bob Bowman

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Here, then, are the top-20 moments of Phelps’ career, as selected by Bowman, with a nod from the man who produced them. Each moment includes a review of what transpired, with Bowman weighing in on several of the selections with additional commentary and analysis.

Counting down from 20…

20. 2015 Summer Nationals – 200 Breaststroke (2:11.30)

Note: Wait, what? Why is there a breaststroke listed here? Well, in what turned out to be his final appearance at Nationals, Phelps delivered a personal-best time in the 200 breaststroke. The swim followed two superb efforts in the butterfly events and arrived on the last day of the competition.

Bob Bowman’s Assessment: “It was his last Nationals and he hadn’t had a chance to race the event much. I felt it showed a lot about a guy who was still trying to get better. He was still working to improve himself.”

19. 2008 Olympic Games – 100 Freestyle (47.51)

Note: Phelps handled the leadoff leg of the United States’ triumphant 400 freestyle leg in an American-record time, which also would have won the bronze medal that year in the individual 100 free. The effort, though, goes largely overlooked due to Jason Lezak’s spectacular anchor leg in which he ran down France’s Alain Bernard. But without Phelps’ big start, Lezak would have faced a larger, and insurmountable, deficit.

18. 2008 Olympic Games – 200 Butterfly (1:52.03)


Photo Courtesy: Swimming World Magazine

Note: When Phelps hit the wall in world-record time, his reaction did not match the achievement. He tossed his goggles onto the deck and wore a disgusted look. It was soon revealed that, on the dive, Phelps’ goggles filled with water, forcing him to navigate the race with limited vision. Obviously, Phelps deftly handled the situation and the scenario played into Bowman’s strategy of challenging Phelps with unforeseen circumstances that would require his charge to adapt to the moment.

17. 2012 Olympic Games – 200 Individual Medley (1:54.27)

Note: There is no mystery that Phelps was not at his best in London. Unlike Beijing, he was not fully dedicated to his training on the road to his fourth Games. However, Phelps at a percentage of his typical self is better than most, and he showed it en route to a third straight title in the event. Phelps was expected to be pushed by countryman Ryan Lochte, who was the reigning world champion and world-record holder. But Lochte had the final of the 200 backstroke earlier in the evening, and in which he earned bronze, and Phelps knew if he could press the pace from the outset, it could take an additional toll on an already tired Lochte.

By three-peating, Phelps joined Australian Dawn Fraser (100 freestyle; 1956-64) and Hungarian Krisztina Egerszegi (200 Backstroke (1988-96) as the only swimmers to win the same event at three consecutive Olympiads.

Bob Bowman’s Assessment: “He put everything he had into that one. He wanted that three-peat bad. We talked about going out hard and putting pressure on everyone, and he took advantage of that.”

16. 2007 World Championships – 200 Butterfly (1:52.09)

Note: As part of Phelps’ dominant showing at the World Champs in Melbourne, he obliterated the world record in the event that launched his career. Not only did Phelps capture the gold medal by more than three seconds, he shaved 1.62 seconds off his previous global standard. The performance simply confirmed just how far ahead of the field Phelps was in his signature discipline.

15. 2002 Summer Nationals – 400 Individual Medley (4:11.09)

Note: Rare are the instances where a world record is required for victory, but that was exactly the case when Phelps clashed with Erik Vendt in a race that is one of Bowman’s favorites. In their showdown at the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Phelps and Vendt each went under Tom Dolan’s existing world record, with Phelps prevailing in 4:11.09, to the 4:11.27 of Vendt.

14. 2001 World Championships – 200 Butterfly (1:54.58)

Note: By the time Phelps arrived in Fukuoka, Japan, he was already the world-record holder. But this opportunity at the World Championships proved to be a changing-of-the-guard swim. Lowering his world record to 1:54.58, Phelps topped Olympic champion Tom Malchow, who took the silver medal in 1:55.28. Malchow managed to beat Phelps at the next year’s Pan Pacific Championships, but the evidence was clear at Worlds: The event was now in the grasp of a teenage phenom.

13. 2007 World Championships – 200 Individual Medley (1:54.98)

Jun 21, 2015; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Michael Phelps (USA) on the pool deck after swimming the Men's 200IM Prelim in the final heat during the morning session of day four at the George F. Haines International Swim Center in Santa Clara, Calif. Mandatory Credit: Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Courtesy: Robert Stanton/USA Today Sports Images

Note: Before Phelps went to Beijing and went 8-for-8, he set the table for the Olympiad by dominating at the World Champs in Melbourne. Part of that showing was a world record in the 200 medley, and the first sub-1:55 clocking in history. By entering into the 1:54 realm, Phelps added to his status as the first man to go under 1:58, 1:57, 1:56 and 1:55.

12. 2004 Olympic Games – 200 Freestyle (1:45.32)

Note: As Phelps prepared for the Athens Games, he made the decision to take on the task of facing Ian Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband in the 200 freestyle. The event was deemed the Race of the Century, with Phelps the up-and-comer, van den Hoogenband as the reigning Olympic champ and Thorpe as the world-record holder.

While Thorpe captured the gold convincingly, Phelps produced an American record and proved his worth in an event that was still in development. His presence in the race was also proof of his desire to race against the best – even on their turf. By the next year, Phelps was the world champ and on his way to eventually owning the event.

Bob Bowman’s Assessment: “That might have been his best swim in Athens. He wanted to be in that race and he wanted that challenge.”

11. 2007 World Championships – 200 Freestyle (1:43.86)

Note: In the Land Down Under, Ian Thorpe is revered, so it was almost appropriate that Phelps took the Thorpedo’s record in the 200 freestyle in Melbourne. While Phelps and Bowman believed the record was breakable, there wasn’t a great deal of discussion that it could happen. But when Phelps entered the water, it was clear Thorpe’s standard was in danger. Ultimately, the record went down, and the outcome also convinced Pieter van den Hoogenband, who touched for silver, to swear off the event.

Bob Bowman’s Assessment: “We thought it was (within reach). Ian had been an inspiration to us. I remember I had Michael watch the 400 freestyle at the 1998 World Championships and the way (Ian) finished. It was a model. The record in the 200 freestyle meant something and was held in high regard. Michael had this thing where he would come up to me and say he didn’t feel good in warmup and then he’d go out and do something great. Before that race, he told me he felt so good in warmup. I knew it was going to be something special.”

10. 2007 Summer Nationals – 100 Backstroke (53.01)

Note: Phelps captured the national title with this performance, but the effort meant a lot more. The time was a mere .03 off Aaron Peirsol’s world record in the event, and provided further proof that – if the schedule allowed – could have been as good as anyone in the backstroke events. Remember, at the 2004 Olympic Trials, Phelps earned a berth to Athens in the 200 backstroke, but gave up the spot to Bryce Hunt.

9. 2000 Olympic Trials – 200 Butterfly (1:57.48)

Note: Behind a stunning surge down the last 50 meters, the 15-year-old Phelps finished second to Tom Malchow to claim a bid to the Sydney Olympics. The outing made Phelps the youngest male swimming Olympian from the United States in 68 years and served as the launching point of his spectacular career. A month later, Phelps was fifth in the final of the 200 fly in Sydney.

Bob Bowman’s Assessment: “I guess Indianapolis would have to be on there. It kind of started everything.”

8. 2007 World Championships – 400 Individual Medley (4:06.22)

Note: Unlike the Olympic Games, in which the 400 medley is an opening-day event, the decathlon of the sport is contested on the last day of the World Championships. The fact that Phelps had already logged double-digit races in Melbourne before the 400 I.M. did not prevent him from destroying the world record, as he lowered it by more than two seconds from 4:08.26.

Because the United States was disqualified in the prelims of the 400 medley relay at the World Champs, the event marked Phelps’ seventh and last gold medal of the meet. It also set the stage for the next year’s Olympic Games and Phelps’ chase to match – and eclipse – Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in a single Olympiad.

Bob Bowman’s Assessment: “It showed he was in tremendous condition and it set us up for 2008. I didn’t believe eight golds were possible until after Melbourne because too many things had to happen. But after Melbourne, it seemed doable.”

7. 2016 Olympic Games – 200 Individual Medley (1:54.66)

Note: As Phelps left the sport with a weeklong effort reflective of his greatness, he used the 200 medley to write another historical chapter in his career. By claiming gold, Phelps became the first swimmer – male or female – to win an event at four consecutive Olympiads. The victory stood out even more due to its dominant nature, as Phelps bolted to the front of the field and won by almost two seconds.

6. 2001 Spring Nationals – 200 Butterfly (1:54.92)

Note: The day after Phelps finished fifth in the 200 fly at the Sydney Olympics, Bowman handed his student his workout for the day. In the corner, there was a notation: “Austin, WR.” It was Bowman’s way of indicating that the world record was within Phelps’ reach in early 2001, and his premonition came to fruition via a clocking of 1:54.92 that qualified Phelps for that summer’s World Championships.

5. 2004 Olympic Games – 400 Individual Medley (4:08.26)

Sydney Six: Vendt & Phelps

Erik Vendt and Michael Phelps were just two members of the Sydney Six. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Note: Going into the Athens Games, there was considerable hype about Phelps contesting eight events and chasing Spitz’s record. But Phelps wasn’t looking at the meet in its entirety when he stepped on the blocks for his first event. Rather, he was merely thinking about claiming his first Olympic title, which he managed by posting a world-record time.

4. 2009 World Championships – 100 Butterfly (49.82)

Note: During the tech-suit circus that unfolded at the World Champs in Rome, Phelps was taunted by Serbia’s Milorad Cavic, who offered the American one of his rubber suits to equal the playing field (Phelps was in Speedo’s inferior model). The chatter lit a fire in Phelps, who has always sought forms of motivation. Despite trailing early, Phelps rallied down the stretch and set a world record. Demonstrating how much the victory meant, Phelps tugged on his suit as an obvious message to Cavic.

Bob Bowman’s Assessment: “The thing that made it even better was that Michael banged heads with (Cate Campbell) during warmup and there was a question if he would even swim. That happened about 10 minutes before he had to get to the call room. I told him he didn’t have to race, but he looked at me and said he was ready.”

3. 2008 Olympic Games – 100 Butterfly (50.58)

Note: Already with six gold medals secured, Phelps faced his final individual test in the 100 fly. With the United States heavily favored to win the medley relay, a victory in the 100 fly would make eight gold medals a near lock. With 10 meters left, it looked like Phelps’ perfection would end, as Serbia’s Milorad Cavic had a clear lead. But Phelps’ instincts kicked in just before the finish and he took an extra half-stroke into the wall as Cavic glided. The decision turned out to be the wisest of Phelps’ career, as he won by the slimmest of margins, 50.58 to 50.59. Footage of the touch showed Phelps getting his fingers on the wall just before Cavic, which meant his pursuit of eight gold medals remained alive and was fulfilled a day later.

2. 2008 Olympic Games – 400 Individual Medley (4:03.84)

Note: Every push for greatness starts somewhere and Phelps’ eight-gold week in Beijing began with a dazzling exhibition in the 400 individual medley. Over eight laps, Phelps put on a show and took the world record down by more than a second to 4:03.84. The race provided Phelps with momentum to carry into the remainder of the meet and made it clear that he had brought his best stuff to the Water Cube.

Bob Bowman’s Assessment: “We thought that time was reasonable. It was very important to get off to a good start. We always knew when his first event was good, the rest were going to be good. That got the ball rolling.”

1. 2008 Olympic Games – 200 Freestyle (1:42.96)

Note: This race was over on the start. While Phelps has been known for remarkable finishes and his ability to run down the opposition, the 200 freestyle at the Beijing Games was a four-lap coronation. Phelps opened up a body-length lead by the 50-meter mark and kept widening his advantage with every stroke, until he touched in world-record time, and the first sub-1:43 performance in history.

Bob Bowman’s Assessment: “I think that’s as close to flawless as they come. His underwaters were great, he paced it correctly and he was just so much better than anyone. I knew on the breakout. I though, ‘Here it goes.’ After his first event and then the relay (the comeback over France), we could relax a little.”

Under Consideration (In Chronological Order)

These moments were also considered in the discussion with Bob Bowman:

2000 Olympic Games – 200 Butterfly (1:56.50)

• Phelps finishes fifth in his first Olympic final.

2003 Santa Clara International – 200 Individual Medley (1:57.94)

• Phelps registers first world record in the 200 medley.

2003 Summer Nationals – 200 Individual Medley (1:55.94)

• Phelps drops surprise world record coming off the World Champs in Barcelona.

2004 Olympic Games – 100 Butterfly (51.25)

• Phelps claims gold by catching Ian Crocker in the final strokes.

2007 Columbia Grand Prix – 200 Butterfly (1:53.71)

• Phelps sets a world record, which is precursor to World Champs.

2007 World Championships – 100 Butterfly (50.77)

• Phelps runs down Ian Crocker.

2007 Summer Nationals – 200 Backstroke (1:54.65)

• Phelps gives Aaron Peirsol’s world record a scare.

2015 Summer Nationals – 100 Butterfly (50.45)

• Phelps produces his textile best in the event and send message ahead of the Olympic year.

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4 years ago

Just an amazing piece of Journalism. Great job! john Lohn

4 years ago
Reply to  Anonymous

Amazing article!!!and happy birthday to the one and only…the GOAT!!We miss you so much
Just a little thing : in 2007 Phelps didn’t break the WR in 100 fly , because at the time the WR mark was 50.40 by Ian Crocker ; signed at the 2005 world championship in Montreal, and it lasted until the 2009 season when MP posted 50.22 at the US nationals in Indianapolis.

Ryan Goodwyn
4 years ago

Who wrote this post?

Ravi Natarajan
4 years ago

Many Many Happy Returns!! HAPPY BIRTHDAY MP Sir!!! God Bless!! Cheers!!

Wayne McCauley
4 years ago

Amazing so many. I truly believe if he had his 2015 breaststroke form (2:11.3 ) combined with his 2008 conditioning he could have done a 4:01 or 4 flat. He was very proud of the 2:11 as it was a team record. A true champion

Paul Anthony
3 years ago

Great article! Thanks!

Darren McCarthy
Darren McCarthy
3 years ago

What about the 2004 Olympic Trials and the 200 Back? That would have truly been amazing if he kept the event for Athens.

Dressel is a freak of nature
Dressel is a freak of nature
3 years ago

CAELEB REMEL DRESSEL is better than him.

His 17.6 in the 50 trumps every achievement in swimming history.

This summer, he will go 20.7 and 46.4 in the 50 and 100 free respectively.

Dressel is the most explosive, talented and best sprinter of all time.

There is Lionel Messi and soccer. There is Usain Bolt and track and filed. And there is Caeleb Remel Dressel and swimming.

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