World Championships Throwback: When Michael Phelps Passed Ian Thorpe as the Greatest Swimmer of All-Time in 2007

melbourne2007 with phelps
Michael Phelps took down Pieter van den Hoogenband in the 200 free at the 2007 World Championships; Photo Courtesy: International Swimming Hall of Fame

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Each week leading up to the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, Swimming World will do a special look-back on some of the most memorable races in World Championships history.

Men’s 200 Free, 2007 World Championships – Melbourne

Michael Phelps had one of the best meets of his life at the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne. It was arguably better than his famous eight gold medal stretch at the 2008 Olympic Games a year later in Beijing. In this addition of World Championships Throwback, we are looking back at one of the best races Phelps ever swam in his career.

The 2007 World Championships were a momentous meet in the history of swimming. It was the first major international meet to be streamed live on the internet via the World Championship Sports Network, a digital cable and satellite television network co-owned by NBC Sports that was launched in 2006. The network was rebranded as Universal Sports in 2008 and folded in 2015.

It was a huge moment for the sport and the 200 free was a huge “breakout moment” for Mr. Phelps at those World Championships.

Phelps first went for Mark Spitz’s seven gold-medal count at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens when he entered five individual events and all three relays. He wound up winning six total gold medals and won two bronzes as the 19-year-old could not catch Spitz. The next year, Phelps experimented with some off-events by swimming the 100 and 400 free at the World Championships, taking a break from the 200 fly and 400 IM. He did not make the final in the 400 free at those Worlds, placing 18th. He made the final in the 100 free but only managed 7th place.

In 2006, Phelps got back to business by adding back the 200 fly and 400 IM to his event line-up, lowering the world record in the 200 fly at the Pan Pacs for the first time in three years. He seemed reborn at those Pan Pacs and was the best swimmer in the world in almost all of his events.

Almost all.

The 200 free was still his last event to conquer. Although he had the top time in the world in 2006 with a 1:45.50, there was the imminent danger of the last two Olympic Champions in the Flying Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband (1:45.65) and the “Thorpedo” Ian Thorpe (1:46.42). Both of them did not compete in 2005 with van den Hoogenband recovering from back surgery and Thorpe taking the year off. Both used the “gap year” in 2006 as a way to slowly come back to full force.

Van den Hoogenband was the European Champion in his return. Thorpe swam at Australia’s Commonwealth Games Trials, but was forced to withdraw from the Games due to illness. He also did not compete at the Pan Pacs that year, which would have given him a rematch with Phelps after the two went head to head at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

Leading up to the 2007 World Championships, there was still a debate over who was the best swimmer of all-time between Phelps and Thorpe. Many believed in 2006 that Thorpe was still the world’s all-time greatest swimmer and Phelps had yet to cement his legacy as the “GOAT.” Phelps believed that if he was going to win those critics over, he would have to take Thorpe down head-to-head.

But Thorpe retired in November 2006 and Phelps would never get the opportunity to race him again.

And then Australian National Team Coach Don Talbot told the press,

“Thorpe is still number one in my opinion, and Phelps doesn’t outdo him yet,” Talbot was quoted in Australian newspapers a few days before the meet in Melbourne. “I said he was a great swimmer but he’s not there yet and they got into me about it. Certainly he’s on the right track. If he wins at this meet what he’s planning to do,  then there is no doubt he’ll be the best male swimmer of all time. He will supersede Thorpe.

“He doesn’t want to be one of the greatest,  he wants to be the greatest, and regardless of what I think, I think he has to outdo Spitz next year at the Olympics. Whether he can do that, I don’t know.”

Phelps would let his swimming do the talking.

The Race

Van den Hoogenband was the top seed after the semi-finals and had taken it out with Phelps the first 50 in the final. But the 21-year-old from Baltimore took seven kicks off the wall and all of a sudden had a body length lead on the Dutchman.

Phelps was ahead of Thorpe’s world record. At the 100, he was still ahead. At the 150, he was 0.53 ahead of the record and was swimming further and further ahead of the second fastest swimmer of all-time to that date.

Phelps never looked back and crushed his best time, lowering Thorpe’s world record in the process with a 1:43.86, taking down the 1:44.06 from the 2001 Worlds. It was the first time an American had held the world record in the men’s 200 free since Rowdy Gaines set it in 1982. Phelps was also the third man to repeat at Worlds in the 200 free, joining Michael Gross (1982, 1986) and Thorpe (2001, 2003).

Van den Hoogenband fell way back with a 1:46.28 for the silver medal while a 17-year-old Park Tae-Hwan won the bronze at 1:46.73, his second medal of the meet after winning the 400.

In Phelps’s book “No Limits,” he wrote about the 200 free in Melbourne.

“The day of the 200 free final, dipping into the warm-up pool, I felt it. My freestyle had never, ever felt that smooth. Right then and there, I thought, something special might happen here. Something really special.

“No time on the books was even within a half-second of Ian’s world record 1:44.06, the swim from Fukuoka in 2001. The only other person to even break 1:45 had been van den Hoogenband.

“I was so far ahead that I had time not only to touch but to spin to see the board, jam my left index finger into the air and grab the lane rope with my right arm before Hoogie, in the next lane over, touched the wall. He then turned, saw the board, which said that he was more than two seconds behind at 1:46.28, and came over to the lane line to exchange a handshake.

“Hoogie said to me, ‘Where did that come from?’

“I answered honestly. ‘I don’t know.’

‘What was your best time before that?’

‘1:45.2.’

“Off every wall,’ he said, “the only thing I could look at was your underwaters. I couldn’t focus on any part of my race.’ And then he said, ‘I won’t swim that next year,’ meaning in Beijing.”

Results

  1. Michael Phelps, USA, 1:43.86 (WR)
  2. Pieter van den Hoogenband, NED, 1:46.28 (ISHOF class of 2013)
  3. Park Tae-Hwan, KOR, 1:46.73
  4. Kenrick Monk, AUS, 1:47.12
  5. Massi Rosolino, ITA, 1:47.18
  6. Zhang Lin, CHN, 1:47.53
  7. Paul Biedermann, GER, 1:48.09
  8. Nicola Cassio, ITA, 1:49.13

Swimming World’s John Lohn reported at the time:

“Maybe retirement was a good thing for Ian Thorpe, because the record that was deemed untouchable was knocked into history by America’s Superman. Under world-record pace from the start, Michael Phelps posted the almost unbelievable time of 1:43.86 in the 200 freestyle Tuesday night at Rod Laver Arena. That swim dipped under Thorpe’s 2001 record of 1:44.06, set at the 2001 World Champs in Fukuoka, Japan.

Phelps has now set world records in five different individual events during his career – the 200 freestyle, both butterfly events and both medley disciplines. The prospect of winning eight gold medals here is now a distinct possibility. The 200 free victory was his second, complementing his gold medal as part of the American 400 freestyle relay.

‘I just wanted to take it out,’ Phelps said. ‘I had to get out after the first 100, take a step in the third 50 and let the adrenaline go. I’m pretty happy with that. It hurt, but I’m really excited. I did want to race (Thorpe) and I’m a little disappointed I didn’t get that chance, but I got to race against one of the best in Pieter.'”

With this 200 free swim, Phelps had step one completed over becoming known as the greatest swimmer of all-time. The next step was one year later in China.

Aftermath

The men’s 200 free at the 2007 World Championships is the most viewed non-Olympic race on YouTube with almost 2,000,000 views to this day. It is still the eighth fastest swim of all-time and Phelps’ world record would last until the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games when he lowered it to a 1:42.96. Only Paul Biedermann (1:42.00) and Yannick Agnel (1:43.14) have been faster individually than his swim in Melbourne.

Phelps won the 200 free a year later at the 2008 Olympic Games with Park grabbing the silver and Peter Vanderkaay the bronze. Only Phelps, Park and Biedermann made the finals in Melbourne and Beijing. Biedermann placed fifth at the Olympics.

Biedermann rose to international prominence two years after Melbourne when he became the first person to take down Phelps in four years when he obliterated the 200 free world record to where it is now at 1:42.00.

Phelps would later on get the silver in the 200 free at the 2011 World Championships behind Ryan Lochte (and ahead of Biedermann with the bronze), and would qualify to swim it individually at the 2012 Olympic Games before ultimately dropping the event from his program.

Phelps is widely known today as the greatest swimmer of all-time and there is no argument against him. But it was the 200 free at the 2007 World Championships that many believe is what propelled him over Thorpe as the greatest swimmer in history.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

9 comments

  1. avatar
    Daniel D'Addona

    Wow … so many things in here that I didn’t remember.

  2. Rick Stanfield

    Ian Thorpe was never the greatest swimmer of all time. Phelps passed him for greatest of that era and finally passed Mark Spitz as greatest of all time.

    • avatar
      Andy Ross

      Certainly up for debate. But Thorpe did break 13 world records in 4 years. Very similar to Ledecky’s 14 WR’s in 5 years.

    • avatar
      Taylor Covington

      Awesome article!! I thought I knew it all about Phelps until I read this!!!

  3. Robert Burke

    Phelps is unquestionably the greatest of all time, but that 2008 200 free final sure would have been a lot more interesting had Thorpe still been in full shape and swimming

    • avatar
      Andy Ross

      If Thorpe was there in 08 in the water it would have been one of the most iconic races of all-time.

  4. avatar
    Roberto Camino

    That 2007 200 free was a great event, maybe a breakthrough on the way to swim that, but Phelps passed Thorpe at 2004 Olimpics. And before Phelps, Mark Spitz was the greatist swimmer of all time, not Thorpe….