World/American Swimmers of the Early Millennium: Michael Phelps & Katie Ledecky Were Slam Dunks

Phelps v ledecky

World/American Swimmers of the Early Millennium: Michael Phelps & Katie Ledecky Were Slam Dunks

With the COVID-19 pandemic canceling the most-important competitions of the year, Swimming World made the decision to suspend its Swimmer of the Year selections for 2020. There simply was not enough data to legitimately honor individuals as World, American, European, Pacific Rim and African Swimmers of the Year. Instead, we decided to name the Swimmers of the Millennium for the first 20 years (2000-19) of the 2000s.

European Selections

Pacific Rim Selections

African Selections

Here are the World/American choices:

Michael Phelps, USA

He was a boy at the dawn of the millennium, and just one man envisioned a future anywhere near what ultimately unfolded. Bob Bowman was that guy, and through a combination of nerve and foresight, the coach recognized the potential of Michael Phelps to emerge as a once-in-a-lifetime performer. Oh, how Bowman’s prophecy was on target.

Because he is the automatic choice as the greatest swimmer in history, it was simple to name Phelps as the World and American Swimmer of the first score of the Millennium. The difficult part of the exercise was choosing how to fit Phelps’ list of achievements in the allocated space. After all, we’re talking about an athlete who—from 2000-16—attended five Olympiads and walked away with 28 medals.

When Phelps first stepped onto the Olympic stage, he was a 15-year-old racing the 200 butterfly at the 2000 Games in Sydney. The appearance was predicted by Bowman during a conversation with his pupil’s mother, Debbie, almost four years earlier. While Phelps finished fifth and off the podium in his Olympic debut, he proved he belonged and laid the groundwork for bigger moments ahead.

“Sydney inspired us to keep working and to really ask what was possible in the sport of swimming,” Bowman said.

The next year, there was a world record and an initial World Championship title in the 200 fly, and by 2003, Phelps had surpassed Australian icon Ian Thorpe as his sport’s headliner. Quite simply, Phelps was a never-before-seen force, even if he had yet to win an Olympic medal. That hole was filled at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where Phelps won eight medals—six gold and two bronze.


Michael Phelps the man – Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

World records became the norm for Phelps, who set 39 global standards during his career. They came in the 200 freestyle, both butterfly events, each individual medley discipline and as a relay stalwart for the United States. Phelps, too, was one of the world’s best backstrokers, and only scheduling conflicts left him short of medaling in that stroke on the world scene.

In 2008, Phelps stamped himself further into Olympic lore when he followed a seven-title showing at the 2007 World Championships with eight golds at the Beijing Games, those medals complemented by seven world records. The effort surpassed Mark Spitz’s seven golds from the 1972 Munich Games, and was much more difficult, requiring 17 races over eight days—and against deeper competition. Really, the week in Beijing was enough to make Phelps the Swimmer of the Millennium.

“Everything was accomplished,” Phelps said after he wrapped up his Beijing program. “I will have the medals forever. Nothing is impossible. With so many people saying it couldn’t be done, all it takes is an imagination, and that’s something I learned and something that helped me.”

Not surprising, Phelps lacked motivation after Beijing. Sure, he continued to collect huge medal hauls at the 2009 and 2011 World Championships, but he was no longer invincible…and no longer fully dedicated to his training. At the 2012 Olympics, Phelps won six medals, but he failed to medal in the 400 individual medley and was beaten by South African Chad le Clos in the 200 butterfly. Retirement followed for nearly two years, until Phelps decided he wanted to finish his competitive days on his terms—and with a devoted effort to his craft.

Indeed, Phelps closed his career in impressive fashion, as he left the 2016 Olympics with five gold medals and a silver, including a fourth straight victory in the 200 individual medley and the reclaiming of his title in the 200 fly. Of his 28 career Olympic medals, 23 were of the golden variety, and he produced a pair of eight-medal Games and two with six-medal hauls.

There is a tenet in the journalism industry to never suggest a feat will go unmatched. That principle can be discarded when it comes to Phelps. What he accomplished during the first score of this millennium is other-worldly, the stuff of video games.

“This all started and began with one little dream as a kid, to try to change the sport of swimming and do something no one else has ever done, and it turned out pretty cool,” Phelps said.

Sure did.

2. Ian Thorpe, Australia
3. Pieter van den Hoogenband, Netherlands

2. Ryan Lochte, USA
3. Aaron Peirsol, USA

(First-place votes in parentheses)

Katie Ledecky, USA

Statistics play a key role in sports, this numerical data allowing media members and fans alike to compare athletes—often across generations. While some athletes still cannot be separated after the dissection of available stats, those pertaining to American Katie Ledecky provide a no-doubt-about-it conclusion.

In lieu of its annual exercise of naming Swimmers of the Year, which was impossible in this COVID-19-impacted year, Swimming World decided to identify the top swimmers of the first score—or 20 years—of the millennium. When it came to selecting the World Swimmer of the Millennium, Ledecky was the easy choice.


Katie Ledecky – Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Since emerging on the global scene as the 2012 Olympic champion in the 800 freestyle, Ledecky has been an undeniable force. She has garnered world championships and world records with ease, her foes aware they were in a fight for silver—not gold. She has also flourished, similar to Michael Phelps, while under intense pressure and facing grand expectations.

Over the span of four World Championships (2013-19), Ledecky has won 15 gold medals, including four at the 2015 World Champs, where Ledecky won the 200, 400, 800 and 1500 freestyle—a feat known as The Quad. More, she has set 14 world records since 2013, her times in the distance-freestyle events foreign to anyone but herself.

“I’ve seen Michael win eight medals in Beijing. That was hard-fought,” said Frank Busch, USA Swimming’s national team director, of Ledecky. “I’m sure he’d be the first one to say Katie’s a freak. She’s a freak of nature in what she’s done.”

The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro represent Ledecky’s finest hour, as she left South America with four gold medals and a silver. By registering solo triumphs in the 200, 400 and 800 free, Ledecky joined American Debbie Meyer (1968 Olympics) as just the second athlete to win three freestyle events at a single Games.

Her victories in the 400 and 800 free arrived in world-record time, and her decision in the 200 came against one of the deepest fields assembled in Rio. Yet, few were surprised by what Ledecky accomplished, such is the level at which she competes.

“This is the end of a four-year journey,” Ledecky said following her performance in Rio. “The Olympics are the pinnacle of our sport, and I have to wait another four years to have that moment, so I just wanted to enjoy it. The memories mean more than the medals to me. I hit all my goals right on the nose this week. I’m proud to be part of history.”

For all of Ledecky’s Olympic and World Champs success, it is necessary to look deeper at the numbers to truly understand the special nature of her talent. So, sit back and enjoy:

• Ledecky owns the seven fastest times in the history of the 400 freestyle, and 12 of the 13 swiftest marks. Her world record of 3:56.46 is 2.30 seconds faster than Ariarne Titmus, the No. 2 performer of all-time.

• In the 800 freestyle, Ledecky boasts the 22 fastest performances ever, and 24 of the top 25. Her world record of 8:04.79 is nearly 10 seconds quicker than No. 2 performer Rebecca Adlington, the 2008 Olympic champion in the event.

• In the 1500 freestyle, Ledecky occupies the top 10 slots in history, and her world record of 15:20.48 is an astounding 18-plus seconds clear of No. 2 performer Lotte Friis.

When Janet Evans ruled the distance world in the late 1980s, her performances were considered far beyond the era. Ledecky has done things that are even more awe-inspiring, and she has done so while remaining humble and among the most likable athletes in the sport.

“Katie Ledecky is the student who takes 20 credits a semester at Harvard and gets a 4.0 every semester—and nobody likes that person,” said two-time Olympic medalist Elizabeth Beisel. “But everybody loves Katie Ledecky. You just love to love Katie.”

And you can’t wait to see what she does next.

2. Inge de Bruijn, Netherlands
3. Leisel Jones, Australia

2. Natalie Coughlin, USA
3. Missy Franklin, USA

(First-place votes in parentheses)