World Record Flashback: When Michael Phelps Blasted the 400 IM and Launched the Great Eight

Michael Phelps

World Record Flashback: When Michael Phelps Blasted the 400 IM and Launched the Great Eight

Throughout his career, Michael Phelps flourished over a range of strokes and distances. It is only appropriate, then, that the 400 individual medley was a staple of his excellence, and his world record in the discipline is a deeply appreciated performance—and the first standard celebrated in this new Swimming World feature – World Record Flashback.

World record holders are uniquely etched into the lore of the sport, defined by a timeframe never previously known. This month, as an homage to these epic pacesetters, Swimming World unveils “World Record Flashback,” a new feature that examines—in detail—a global standard from the past. And for this debut piece, it wasn’t difficult to select our first subject. We had to go with the GOAT.

Would the stars align? Would his body hold up? Could he maintain his mental edge? Was he in peak form? These were a few of the questions that surrounded Michael Phelps as he headed to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, his sights targeting a haul of eight gold medals. The primary storyline inside the Water Cube was simple: Could Phelps surpass the iconic seven gold medals captured by American hero Mark Spitz at the 1972 Olympics in Munich?

If the goal seemed familiar, it made sense. Four years earlier, with Athens serving as host, Phelps first took on an eight-event schedule and attacked Spitz’s place in the sport’s history. In the birthplace of the Olympics, Phelps was extraordinary, walking away with six gold medals and a pair of bronze medals. Yet, with stacked competition and the reliance on teammates in relay action, one aspect of the “Chase for Eight” was clear: Talent must be complemented by a little good fortune.

Well, in some cases.

In his opening salvo of the Beijing Games, Phelps delivered a major statement with a dominant performance in the 400-meter individual medley. En route to his second consecutive Olympic title in the event, the 23-year-old blasted a world record of 4:03.84 to prevail by more than two seconds over Hungarian Laszlo Cseh (4:06.16). With a sub-4:04 outing, Phelps sliced 1.41 seconds off the world record that he had established earlier in the summer at the United States Olympic Trials.

Phelps’ effort was the perfect way to jumpstart action, as it provided momentum for the American and surely led the opposition to wonder: Is this guy beatable? While Phelps put in the work in the water, it was Coach Bob Bowman who was tasked with the challenge of drafting a plan to have his pupil shine in Beijing. As soon as Phelps touched the wall, Bowman knew a special week was in the works.

“We thought that time was reasonable,” Bowman said. “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.”

There are several reasons why this world record has been selected to initiate this new Swimming World series. For one, in the 13 years since it was established, no athlete has come close to taking it down. Meanwhile, it was the victory that started the greatest showing in Olympic history. More, it is the only individual world record of Phelps’ that remains on the books.

A Thumbs-Up Performance

As Phelps climbed the blocks on the morning of Aug. 10, there was little doubt he would emerge triumphant. While Cseh and American teammate Ryan Lochte were considered medal favorites, they didn’t figure to challenge for the top step of the podium. And it didn’t take long for Phelps to extinguish any longshot dreams.

Covering the opening butterfly leg in 54.92, Phelps was immediately in command and ahead of the field. While Lochte lurked through the midway point, due to the strength of his backstroke leg, Phelps was still in front at 200 meters. It was an impressive breaststroke performance, though, that determined the verdict. At the 300-meter mark, behind a split of 1:10.56, Phelps led Lochte by almost a second, and set the stage for him to come home in an untouchable mark of 56.79 for the freestyle leg.

“Afterward, I looked up and saw President (George W.) Bush giving me a thumbs-up and holding the American flag,” Phelps said more than a decade ago. “That was pretty cool. I was pretty emotional after that race. I’m emotional, excited. It’s a really good way to start. I’m not downplaying this race by any means, but I have to put that race behind me. I have to act like it never happened because I have so many tough races ahead of me.”

Phelps’ comments are typical of the man who ruled the water like no other. As superb as his swim was, there was no time to dwell on its significance. Rather, Phelps needed to shift his focus on his next duty.

How dominant was Phelps? The breakdown of each stroke tells the story. Phelps had the fastest split in the field for the butterfly, breaststroke and freestyle legs, and the second-fastest performance on the backstroke leg, behind only Lochte. Put that power and consistency together, and a performance of spectacular nature is produced.

Some critics might argue that the world record must be measured with context since the 2008 Olympics included the use of high-tech suits. However, the counter to that argument is that the suits worn in Beijing paled in comparison to the technology that was introduced the following year. In 2009, fully polyurethane suits were the norm, leading to 40-plus world records at that summer’s World Championships and turning the sport—at least temporarily—into a farce.

Everything Has To Fall Into Place

As comfortable as Phelps’ debut win of the 2008 Games was, he absolutely needed a few things to fall his way during the remainder of the competition. There was Jason Lezak’s sensational anchor leg on the 400 freestyle relay that rallied the United States to gold over France. There was Phelps’ half-stroke finish in the 100 butterfly to edge Serbian Milorad Cavic by 1-hundredth of a second. And there was the fact that water-filled goggles in the 200 butterfly did not deter a gold medal in the event that launched Phelps’ international career.

“You do have to have all your stars aligned,” Phelps once said. “Everything has to fall into place perfectly.”

Over time, Phelps has watched several of his world records go to other names. Most recently, American superstar Caeleb Dressel took his 100 butterfly standard while Hungarian standout Kristof Milak snared the global standard in the 200 butterfly. The prospect of Phelps soon losing his world record in the 400 individual medley? Not too good.

Since Phelps set the world record in Beijing, the closest anyone has come to his standard is the 4:05.18 that Lochte produced on the way to Olympic gold in 2012 in London. Additionally, American Chase Kalisz is the only other man to go sub-4:06, and his career-best time of 4:05.90 was from 2017. Even more convincing is the fact that last year’s Olympic Games did not produce a single performance under 4:09.

Nope, it doesn’t appear Phelps’ last-standing record is in any danger—and maybe that is an appropriate scenario.

“Just a complete effort,” Bowman said. “A totally dominant performance.”

Perfectly said.

 

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