By Fischer Sherrod • 30 Mar 2020 • 8 min read
With 28 Olympic gold medals, 27 World Championship gold medals, and 16 Pan Pacific Championship gold medals, Michael Phelps is the most decorated swimmer of all time. But Phelps' medals are just the beginning of his legacy. He has attended 5 Olympic Games, been named World Swimmer of the Year 7 times, and has set 39 world records--4 of which still stand today. His list of achievements goes on and on. In fact, many have acclaimed Phelps as 'the greatest swimmer of all time'. With his retirement in 2016, however, his achievements have flatlined. Now more than ever, the door is open for a new star to top his records and steal his title. The question is: Who could possibly rival Michael Phelps and the legacy that he has created?
To answer this question, let's first take a more in-depth look at Michael Phelps' life to see how he was able to accomplish such impressive feats.
Michael Phelps began swimming competitively when he was in high school. It was during these years that he met his lifelong coach, Bob Bowman. Bowman quickly recognized Phelps' talent and soon began training him. By 1999, Phelps qualified for the U.S. National B Team. Just a year later, Phelps' time in the 200m Fly earned him a spot in the 2000 Summer Olympics. At the age of 15, Phelps was the youngest male swimmer to race in the Olympic Games in 68 years. Shown below is a table that documents Michale Phelps' placement races throughout his career.
Starting in the year 2000, Phelps raced in every Olympic Games, World Championship, and Pan Pacific Championship until 2012. At the World Championship in 2001, Phelps brought home his first international gold medal. From this point on, Phelps went on a hot streak, taking home medal after medal--more often than not, gold medals. Michael Phelps' peak was likely the Olympic Games of 2008. This year, Phelps quite literally swept the field; he brought home a gold medal in every race that he participated in. Phelps' dominance continued until his retirement in 2016.
While much of Phelps' success can be attributed to his work ethic, biology has nonetheless played a role. Michael Phelps' body is rather disproportionate; take his wing span for example. The average person's wingspan is about the same as his/her height. Phelps' wingspan, however, at an enormous 6' 7", is three inches longer than his height. His abnormally large wingspan allows him to generate more power with each stroke. While wingspan data doesn't exist for all professional swimmers, especially for those who raced in the twentieth century, we can take a look at how Phelps' wingspan stacks up against a few top-level competitors.
Among professional swimmers, an abnormally long wingspan is ironically all too common. While Phelps' wingspan is average, his ape span--the difference between one's height and wingspan--is among the highest in the group. With a large ape span, Phelps is reaping the benefits of a large wing span without the increase in weight that it typically comes with.
In addition to his wingspan, Michael Phelps has disproportionately small legs and a long torso. According to sports biographer Colleen de Bellefonds, "Phelps has the torso of a man who's 6 feet 8 inches tall... and the legs of a man 8 inches shorter" (bibliography.com). This means that his legs produce less drag than other swimmers of similar stature. The abnormalities continue with Phelps' hyperextended, size 14 feet. His feet are essentially flippers, working to propel him through the water.
Now that we know a little bit more about Michael Phelps and his career, let's see if any current swimmer has a chance to rival his legacy.
Because Michael Phelps is such a well-rounded athlete, with medals in four stroke categories--freestyle, butterfly, medley, and backstroke--it would be unfair to judge the entirety of his career based on his success in one of these groups. Instead, this analysis will take a more holistic approach, comparing swimmers based on their success in international championships
Micheal Phelps is perhaps best known for his performances in the Olympic Games, collecting 28 Olympic medals in five appearances. In 2016, when Michael Phelps retired from professional swimming, his medal count was unprecedented. Before Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian was Larisa Latynina, a Soviet gymnast of the 1960s who won a total of 18 medals. To get an idea of the success of Olympic swimmers before Michael Phelps, let's take a look at the graph below.
While many of these swimmers are amongst the 20 most decorated Olympians of all time, their medal counts pale in comparison to that of Michael Phelps. Furthermore, because all the swimmers on this list are retired, with the exception of 35 year old Ryan Lochte, none of them have a chance to surpass Phelps' medal count. But what about the younger generation of Olympic swimmers?
If any current Olympic swimmer were to break Phelps' record, he/she would have to be very young--no older than 25. The 20+ medal count advantage that Phelps has over any current swimmer would take many years to overcome. This swimmer would also need to have a few Olympic medals by now. Below is a table of all the current Olympic swimmers who fulfill these requirements.
Out of these 7 candidates, Katie Ledecky and Penny Oleksiak have the best chance of challenging the 28 medal record. Let's first talk about Katie Ledecky.
Many followers of the professional swim scene consider Katie Ledecky to be the best female swimmer in the world. In her most recent Olympic appearance, Ledecky earned 5 medals. But she wasn't just placing top three in her events, she was winning them and often doing so by a significant margin. For example, in the 800m freestyle, she finished 12 seconds before the second place finisher! Katie Ledecky's dominance in events like these show her potential as an Olympic swimmer. As professional swimmers often retire in their early- to mid-30s, Ledecky will likely participate in four more Olympic Games. She will need to average approximately 6 medals per Olympics to tie Phelps' record. A challenging task, but certainly doable.
In many ways, Penny Oleksiak is a bit of a wildcard. In her first Olympic showing in 2016, Oleksiak won 4 medals--one gold, one silver, and two bronze. While Oleksiak walked away with only one medal less than Ledecky, her performance was far less convincing. Two of these medals were earned as a part of a 4 x 100m/200m team and her only gold medal was the result of a perfect tie. With this being said, Oleksiak is an incredibly young swimmer with plenty of time to improve. She is only 19 and could potentially compete in five more Olympic Games! With an average of 5 medals per Olympic showing, Oleksiak could become the most decorated Olympian of all time.
But there is more to swimming and an athlete's legacy than the Olympic Games. In the four years between one Olympic Games and the next, professional swimmers can compete in two World Championships and one Pan Pacific Championship. These events are a rare opportunity for professional swimmers to compete against their international competitors. As such, these competitions are taken very seriously. Because little data is available on the Pan Pacific Championship, we will focus on the World Championship in this analysis. Below is a table of the most successful swimmers in the history of the World Aquatics Championship (WAC).
As with the Olympic Games, Michael Phelps' success at the WAC is unrivaled--for now. While Phelps is nonetheless the most decorated WAC swimmer, he has earned this title in a rather unconvincing fashion[b]. With 5 of the ten most accomplished swimmers of WAC history still competing, his title is far from safe.
Shown above are the scatter plots and trend lines of the 5 active swimmers with the most WAC medals. The trend lines estimate each swimmer's potential medal count given their success in previous WACs and assuming he/she will compete until the age of 32. Let me use Caeleb Dressel's stats to explain.
In 2017, Caeleb Dressel competed in his first WAC at the age of 20, earning medals in seven different events. At the 2019 WAC, Dressel one-upped his previous performance, adding 8 medals to his collection. Because Dressel averages 7.5 medals per WAC and he is only 23, this model estimates that he will earn more than 50 WAC medals by the end of his career! It is important to keep in mind, however, that this model is imperfect. It doesn't account for factors such as the effects of age on performance or the possibility of injury.
Regardless of this model's imperfections, the graphs above give us a general idea of each swimmer's potential. Among this group, Caeleb Dressel and Katie Ledecky stand out. Their potential WAC medal count--52 and 42 respectively--are well above Phelps'. Even if these athletes retire early or experience a slight drop-off in performance, they have a good shot at taking Phelps' WAC medal count record.
As a 22 year old with 6 Olympic medals and 18 WAC medals, Katie Ledecky is a top contender to rival Phelps' legacy. Right now, Ledecky seems unstoppable. With every passing meet, she seems to outpace her competitors by greater and greater margins. It seems unlikely that any swimmer will be able to match Ledecky in the near future. If Ledecky continues her dominant run of form, she will certainly put Phelps' legacy to the test.
Sources: swimswam.com, olympic.org, fina.org, and usaswimming.org