The Sinister 6: Better Than Phelps?

Michael Phelps Ryan Lochte
Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

By Michael Grenon, Swimming World College Intern

He’s a living legend; the greatest of all time.

He’s also human.

Michael Phelps has been on the international swimming radar for 15 years—and he’s still racing. Nearly half his life ago, Phelps placed fifth in the 200 meter butterfly in his first Olympic Games. Twenty-two Olympic medals and countless front-page headlines later, even a summary of his athletic legacy would run (or swim) right off this page.

But what about the swimmers who have individually beaten him at the biggest stage of the sport since his rise to the top? Not taking away from his medal-less Olympic debut when he was 15 years old, The Baltimore Bullet has been the highest medal-earning athlete in the most recent three Olympic Games in a row. In any sport.

Incredibly, Phelps has not won the gold medal in only three of 14 individual Olympic performances since Athens, and failed to earn a medal in only one of the three, where he finished fourth.

However, above Phelps’ Olympic legacy stand an elite few: six swimmers who have out-swum him head-to-head in the Olympics since Athens 11 years ago. Of course, all six are fairly well-known in the swimming community, and were already known when they topped the greatest of all time. As special as Phelps’ gold medal individual performances were, these other six legends each have their unique (and perhaps underrated) stories.

The Sinister Six:

  1. Ian Thorpe – AUS
    • 5 individual freestyle Olympic medals spanning Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004.
  2. Pieter van den Hoogenband – NED
    • 5 individual freestyle Olympic medals spanning Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004.
  3. Ryan Lochte – USA
    • 7 individual backstroke/IM Olympic medals spanning Athens 2004 to London 2012.
  4. Thiago Pereira – BRA
    • 1 individual IM Olympic medal in London 2012.
  5. Kosuke Hagino – JPN
    • 1 individual IM Olympic medal in London 2012.
  6. Chad le Clos – RSA
    • 2 individual butterfly Olympic medals in London 2012.

All six are Olympic medalists. All six represent different swimming nations. All six subverted Phelps’ position on the swimming world throne.


Athens 2004: Men’s 200 Meter Freestyle Final

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The 200 freestyle finals at Athens was considered “the race of the century” by many leading up to it. Just look at the big names in that final. Go ahead; look again. Who you see listed are two of the greatest freestylers of all time, someone you may have heard of before named Phelps, a double Olympic medalist in the 400 freestyle Klete Keller, considerably the greatest male distance swimmer in history, Grant Hackett, and Simon Burnett, who would go on to set the incumbent 200 yard NCAA/US Open record two years later with the University of Arizona.

That’s a mouthful. Given the ridiculously high level of competition, it wasn’t too surprising that Phelps failed to top the podium. He even addressed the media:

“How can I be disappointed? I swam in a field with the two fastest freestylers of all time.”

phelps-thorpe-handshake-athens

Photo Courtesy: Fox Sports

Although the race ended Phelps’ shot at seven gold medals in a single Olympics (which would have tied Mark Spitz’s Munich 1972 campaign), there’s no doubt that the Thorpedo and Hoogie deserve recognition for motivating a spectacular performance by Phelps four years later in Beijing.

Thorpe is definitely in contention for the greatest freestyler of all time—especially due to his young age and freestyle range. He was the world champion 400 meter freestyler in 1998 at just 15 years young, and at one point held the 200, 400, and 800 long course meter freestyle world records.

He even dipped down to the 100 freestyle, where he won the bronze in Athens. The only swimmer to out-swim his 2002 400 freestyle world record of 3:40.08 was the super-suited Paul Biedermann in 2009—by one one-hundredth of a second.

Van den Hoogenband, on the other hand, may not be as well known as Thorpe, even though the two are very comparable. There was less drama around his performances compared to Thorpe (no serious doping allegations, no memorable false starts in Athens, etc.), which may explain why. They swam during the same era, and had a lot of event crossover in the 100 and 200 freestyles.

However, in his olympic run from Atlanta 1996 to Athens 2004, The Flying Dutchman managed to defeat the two-time defending 100 freestyle Olympic champion, Alexander Popov, for the Sydney gold medal and defend it in Athens. He was the first person to break 48 seconds in the 100 long course freestyle, and also the only double Olympic champion ever in the 100 and 200 meter freestyles (Sydney). He nearly repeated it in Athens if it weren’t for Ian Thorpe. Now retired, his Olympic career spans from 1996 to 2008.

Thorpe and Hoogie were the founding fathers of the Six. They wouldn’t be joined for another eight years: on the first day of competition in London.


London 2012: Men’s 400 Meter Individual Medley Final

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Between this race and that 200 freestyle final in Athens, the Michael Phelps show starred in its full glory. Every single major international competition saw Phelps succeed in multiple strokes and distances, including the still-mind-boggling pure gold streak in Beijing.

But here we are in London 2012. Most people were seriously questioning if Phelps would swim the 400 IM at trials, but he made the team after finishing just behind Ryan Lochte for second place in Omaha. Most Americans woke up on the first day of swimming events in complete shock upon learning that Phelps was only 0.08 away from not making the final.

He placed 8th in prelims with a 4:13.33, winning his heat only a finger nail ahead of the reining Olympic silver-medalist, Laslo Cseh (4:13.40). This caused a huge stir in among the swimming world. Could we finally have been witnessing a shift in power among the swim gods?

Finals answered that. Lochte surged ahead of the rest of the field, making their efforts—including Phelps’—look pedestrian. With an unofficial textile world record clenched in his Florida Gator jaws, Lochte watched as Phelps was just denied his first attempted Olympic medal in 12 years.

Photo Courtesy: John Huet

Ryan Lochte’s 400 IM needs no introduction. He was the heavy favorite going into both trials and the Olympics. With Lochte’s teammate Phelps, the United States has harbored an untouchable two-headed monster in the IM events since Athens in 2004.

Pereira has silently been lurking in their shadows, representing Brazil internationally since 2002 and breaking the 200 short course meters IM world record in 2007. He made the finals in at least one IM event in every Olympics since Athens, but finally broke through in London with his only career Olympic medal.

Not bad, considering he defeated the two-time reining Olympic champion, Michael Phelps. While Pereira was just shy of a medal at Pan-Pacs last year finishing fourth in the 200 IM, Pereira still has plenty of fuel left in his career and is aiming for more medals in front of a home crowd in Rio.

Kosuke Hagino is one of the world’s hottest up-and-coming prospects. At only 20 years young, the Swimming World Magazine 2014 Male Swimmer of the Year has been a star on Japan’s international swimming roster for the last few years. From individual medley, to backstroke, to all ranges of freestyle, Hagino’s only problem is figuring out how to narrow his event line-up.

It’s probably not the worst problem to have in the grand scheme of things. Considering that he was inducted to the Sinister Six (Five, at that point) at only 18, the future looks bright for Hagino leading up to Rio. His best is definitely yet to come.


London 2012: Men’s 200 Meter Butterfly Final

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The results of the last two races were not complete surprises for Planet Phelps. However, London’s 200 butterfly final was a different story. Most of today’s swimming audience still remember the finish that shocked the world. It was the fourth time Phelps would swim the event at the Olympics. He was the two-time reining champion and untouched world record holder since 2001.

For 190 meters, he swam like he was. The rest was probably the longest 10 meters in the whole Olympic games, as a fresh 20-year-old Chad le Clos rose up to the challenge and stole Phelps’s most prized possession: the 200 long course butterfly at the Olympic games.

Photo Courtesy: swimhistory.org

Since London, le Clos has been heralded as the new butterfly king. He owns world records in both the 100 and 200 short course meter butterfly events, was the 2014 FINA Male Swimmer of the Year, and was the overall winner in the FINA World Cup circuit in 2011 and 2013. Look to him to defend his gold medal in Rio, especially if Phelps would like a rematch.


To recount all of Phelps’ individual Olympic races since Athens (14, to be exact), and think that he has only failed to win three of them is breathtaking. His individual Olympic legacy is 79 percent gold (not including Sydney). As Phelps’ time atop the swimming world throne starts to fade, Rio 2016 seems likely to be the last Olympics in his storied career. Six swimmers have made their statements, and new up-and-comers are itching to create their own waves.

“When you’re itching for the waves, the only lotion is the ocean.” – Tito Makani (from Rocket Power)

So let’s dive right in: Who else will join the Sinister Six in Rio?


A special thanks to Marshall Waller for inspiring and contributing to this article.

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Francisco Maldonado Freitas

Diogo Maia E Silva we’re living the history!

Andy Carroll
8 years ago

Robyn Horsburgh

Bler
Bler
8 years ago

None of them is better than Phelps. Some of them may feel gracious to have swimmed with the legend. Phelps is the best swimmer of all time, like Michael Jordan the best basketball player of all time.

Emma Adams
8 years ago

Chad le clos

Zahra Bgh
8 years ago

something that makes Phelps special is the essence. He doesn’t swim just to win. Of course every athlete tries to win, but he is looking for something more than merely winning. I might be wrong.

Niles Keeran
8 years ago

Ian Thorpe, a Flash in the Pan, a short term athlete, and certainly not #1 on this sinister six.

Vittorio Pulpo
8 years ago
Reply to  Niles Keeran

Ahahahahah Ian Thorpe is The Greatest Freestyler ever!

Muhamad Danish Azfar
8 years ago

Abbas Hussain Dhanji

Kevin Felts
8 years ago

Phelps is the best, stop trying to take him down a notch!

Vittorio Pulpo
8 years ago

‘Thorpe is definitely in contention for the greatest freestyler of all time—especially due to his young age and freestyle range. He was the world champion 400 meter freestyler in 1998 at just 15 years young, and at one point held the 200, 400, and 800 long course meter freestyle
world records.’

No.Thorpe IS The greatest Freestyler ever and Phelps shouldn’t had won The 200 free in Beijing with him racing

Bill V.
8 years ago

He got beaten by four others in Sydney, 2000, in the finals of the 200-meter butterfly: Tom Malchow, Denys Sylantyev, Justin Norris and Anatoly Polyakov.

Jason Marsteller
8 years ago
Reply to  Bill V.

Might want to re-read the intro:

Michael Phelps has been on the international swimming radar for 15 years—and he’s still racing. Nearly half his life ago, Phelps placed fifth in the 200 meter butterfly in his first Olympic Games. Twenty-two Olympic medals and countless front-page headlines later, even a summary of his athletic legacy would run (or swim) right off this page.

But what about the swimmers who have individually beaten him at the biggest stage of the sport since his rise to the top? Not taking away from his medal-less Olympic debut when he was 15 years old, The Baltimore Bullet has been the highest medal-earning athlete in the most recent three Olympic Games in a row. In any sport.

Bill V.
8 years ago

I did read the intro.
The thing is, Phelps made the final in the 200 fly in 2000. He was in 3rd after the heats, and finished just 33/100ths from medaling. That’s about as close to the top as you can be, and part of his Olympic journey. Phelps was certainly on the big stage at that point, and within the year, breaking world records. The performance was not so far removed from “the top” that it should be excluded for the sake of a catchy headline; speaking of which, calling them sinister is a little odd.

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