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

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.

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.