This is it. You stand up from the ready room and walk calmly onto the pool deck, head bowed, eyes focused on the water. As you step up to your starting block, you shed your layers, then adjust your swim suit and googles so everything is exactly in place. Standing beside your block, you shake your arms so the muscles ripple loosely, releasing the last remnants of nerves and tension from your body. You step onto the block, and as you look into the even, unbroken surface of the water, the world falls away. All that remains is you and the pool. You have prepared for this. You have trained hours, years, a lifetime for this one race. Now, as you visualize the swim you have so thoroughly prepared for, you bend down at the waist and bring your arms out wide then quickly up towards your chest, until they wrap around your body and your hands slap your back: 1, 2, 3 times. You lower your hands to the starting block ready to dive in. "Take your mark..."
Over the past five Olympics, Michael Phelps has started every race like this, ending 28 of them with an Olympic medal. For 16 years, Phelps has swam a practically inhuman career, smashing records and amassing Olympic medals with an ease not seen before, all while bringing the sport of swimming into the Olympic spotlight in a way that no swimmer has previously accomplished. In short, building off of impressive swimmers such as Mark Spitz and Ian Thorpe, Michael Phelps has made swimming awesome. In the process, he has become the most decorated Olympian of all time, with 23 gold medals and 28 career total Olympic medals. And yet, in the wake of what Phelps (sadly for us) claims was the last race of his swimming career (the medley relay final that took place this past Saturday night), there are those that have taken to undermining Phelps' unprecedented Olympic career rather than celebrating it.
Tuesday morning on ESPN's Snapchat Discover story, an article was published under the headline, "Why Michael Phelps Isn't the GOAT" (GOAT=greatest of all time). The article goes on to list the "top 10 greatest U.S. summer Olympic gold medalists ever," placing Phelps at only the number two spot. They write on Phelps, "No Olympian has ever won as many gold medals in a single Olympics... No Olympian has won nearly as many combined medals as Phelps (28 overall, including 23 gold)... [and that] he's won more gold medals than at least 110 countries!" And yet, the ESPN article goes on to place Carl Lewis, former track and field Olympic star, ahead of Michael Phelps as the greatest Olympian of all time. ESPN proclaims that Carl Lewis is the greatest Olympian ever, because, even though he only won "nine gold medals, and 10 overall, he competes in a sport where you can't win that many medals, because track doesn't have additional events where you run backward or with your arms maneuvering in bizarre ways. You just run and jump as far and fast as you can."
Look, there is no reason to take away from the amazing accomplishments of Carl Lewis or any other Olympic athlete. At the 2016 Rio Olympics alone, we have seen many incredible athletes competing in a myriad of sports. Some of those highlights from Rio's Olympic run thus far have included Simone Biles' stunning gold medal performances in gymnastics and Usain Bolt's historic three-peat in the 100-meter dash. But to imply that Michael Phelps' 28 career medals and 23 gold medals are somehow less valid because he competes in a sport which, ESPN seems to imply, is about "maneuvering in bizarre ways" and not just about swimming as fast as you can, is disrespectful not only to Phelps and his achievements, but also to the sport of swimming itself.
At age 15, Michael Phelps became the youngest male Olympian the U.S. had sent to compete at the Olympics in almost 70 years. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Phelps broke Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals won during a single Olympics when he won a total of eight gold medals, including a gold in the 100 fly where he won by .01 seconds. Phelps went on to become the first swimmer to ever win four consecutive gold medals in an event after winning the 200 I.M. for the fourth time last week at the Rio Olympics. Phelps still holds American, world, and Olympic records in many of the events he has competed during his swimming career. At the end of last week, Phelps retired as the most decorated Olympian of all time, with a career total of 28 Olympic medals. He has the most Olympic gold medals of all time, with a career total of 23 Olympic gold medals. He has rightfully earned a legacy as the greatest Olympian of all time, yet somehow, because his title as the greatest Olympian of all time has been secured through the sport of swimming, he is undermined rather than applauded for his unparalleled accomplishments.
Michael Phelps is not the only great Olympian the world has ever seen. In fact, he isn't the only great Olympic swimmer either, as evidenced most recently by Katie Ledecky's extraordinary victory in the women's 800 meter final, in which she beat out the second place finisher by an unheard of 11.90 seconds (rewatch the 2008 Beijing Olympics 4x100 men's relay finals for just one of many other examples of swimming excellence, with Jason Lezak's incredible anchor swim.) However, no other Olympic athlete in the history of the games has earned 23 Olympic gold medals or 28 total Olympic medals. No other athlete has enough gold medals to beat out 110 countries in terms of gold medals won. There is no other Olympian more decorated than Michael Phelps. What he has done should not be diminished because of the sport he did it in, a sport which, by the way, requires just as much if not more dedication, strength, commitment, and talent to excel in than any other Olympic sport. In truth, all Olympic sports are impressive in unique ways, and swimming is no less impressive because it takes place in water, has multiple events, and requires a swimsuit rather than shoes. After all, track and field has events like the long jump and hurdles as well as running events, and honestly any sport could look "bizarre" to someone. Furthermore, isn't the Olympics supposed to be coming together as a world to celebrate incredible athletes for being the best in their sports rather than taking away from their accomplishments because of the sport in which they compete?
What Michael Phelps has done over the past five Olympics is astonishing. He has left an Olympic legacy that is unparalleled. He has brought the world together as they watched his swims and cheered him on through each of his Herculean victories. Will there someday be an Olympian, swimmer or otherwise, draped in more medals, gold and otherwise, than Phelps? Perhaps, records are meant to be defeated. But, for now, and probably for a very, very long time, a final tally of 28 Olympic medals, 23 of them gold, firmly and decisively make Michael Phelps, a swimmer, the most decorated and the greatest Olympian of all time.