The American is the only person to have won an individual swimming gold past the age of 31. Persistence, money and freakish talent have helped
Age 31 isnt over the hill in most endeavors. Baseball players routinely play into their 40s, Phillip Dutton just won an equestrian medal at age 52, and writers often peak in their 50s or 60s (we hope).
But what Michael Phelps has done in the pool is unusual. The list of individual medalists (excluding relays) in swimming whove passed their 30th birthday is a short one SportsReference.com counts 15 (add relays, and the list expands to 23). Of that group, only Dara Torres was older than Phelps today when shewon multiple individual medals in one Olympics, taking three bronzes in 2000.
Individual gold medalists age 31 and up? None. Not until Phelps did it Tuesday night in the 200m butterfly. That was his 12th gold medal in an individual event, sending historians back to Greek antiquity for a comparable antecedent.
How is Phelps able to do what swimmers of the past have not?
Sheer persistence helps. Mark Spitz won two medals as a teen phenom in 1968 and seven golds in his standard-setting streak in 1972. Then he retired, apart from a short-lived comeback effort years later.
One reason Phelps has chosen a different career path is simple: the life of an Olympic star is no longer one of monastic poverty, thanks to a series of changes internationally and domestically through the 1970s. Were no longer talking about Jim Thorpe being stripped of his 1912 medals because he accepted a pittance for playing a totally different sport. Today, Thorpe would win cash just qualifying for the US team.
And swimmers such as Phelps get paid, with prize money at the World Aquatic Championships now up over $5m and a steady stream of sponsorship money available. Even swimmers who arent anywhere close to Phelps level can earn a healthy $3,000 monthly stipend.
Financial comfort is important because swimming is such a demanding sport. Not that most Olympic events are for weekend warriors, but swimming in particular requires a lot of pool time and the occasional dry workout. At 35 hours a week, its not the sort of thing you can do with a full-time job. And the money helps swimmers take in staggering amounts of food to refuel. No wonder the U.S. Olympic swim team is skewing older these days. Male swimmers average in 1988 was 20.9. In 2012, 25.8.
Yet those changes have also revved up the level of competition in the Games. The Olympics are no longer just for college students, the independently wealthy and state-funded machines. Phelps has stuck around, but so have Ryan Lochte, Laszlo Cseh and many other legitimate challengers.
And Phelps is still outdistancing not just the previous generations of Olympic athletes but his peers as well. This summer, 2012 Olympic champion and multiple world medalist Tyler Clary retired after failing to make the US team in multiple events. Hes just 27.
The ageless Dara Torres notwithstanding, women have had a more difficult time sticking around in the sport. Natalie Coughlin has 12 medals from the last three Olympics, but at age 33, she was unable to make the US team for Rio. Kate Ziegler was the Katie Ledecky of the mid-2000s, winning world titles and setting records in distance races in her teens, but she didnt make an Olympic final in 2012 and didnt make the team at age 28 this time around. Katie Hoff swept the individual medley world titles in 2005 and 2007, took a couple of individual medals in 2008 while still in her teens, then faded and eventually retired due to lingering issues with blood clots.
Other swimmers eventually break down. Lochte has dealt with injuries, including a freak run-in with a fan that wrecked his knee. Most of those injuries took place outside the pool, but even in calm, cool water, overuse injuries can pile up over time.
Phelps has likely performed over 10m arm strokes and 7m dolphin kicks in his career, wrote swimming expert Gary Mullen. This volume increases his risk of shoulder impingement and low back disc degeneration, two of the most common injuries in the sport.
Phelps has been able to stay healthy, and his physique certainly doesnt hurt. Even in a pool full of perfectly tapered torsos, Phelps has always stood out with his long arms and large feet.
The last element of the perfect storm that made Phelps the perfect swimmer is coaching. Phelps met Bob Bowman at age 11, and the coach has stuck with him through a successful yet often tempestuous relationship.
Phelps has slowed a little. He scratched from the 100m and 200m freestyle at the Olympic trials this summer, no longer willing or able to attempt the daunting eight-event program he swept in Beijing eight years ago. But his times in individual events are comparable to his times in the past 12 years, excluding the two-year techsuit era that led to faster times for everyone in 2008 and 2009. Compare the 200m butterfly, Phelps first individual gold medal of these Games. He won the 2011 world championship in that event in 1:53.34. His time in Rio? 1:53.36.
Phelps, Bowman and his entourage have a few other tactics that may also have come into play. Maybe the cupping therapy that leaves large hickeys all over his torso is improving his endurance in ways yet to be explained. Maybe Phelpss retirement after the 2012 Games made him come back rejuvenated and hungry.
But much of Phelps success is readily apparent. Hes a physically gifted swimmer who learned picture-perfect strokes, his body has not failed him in any major way, and his support system has helped him maintain those gifts longer than most.