Michael Phelps: Tuesday's Medals Guarantee Swimmer's Place in Olympic History

Ian HanfordFeatured ColumnistAugust 1, 2012

Michael Phelps didn't win an individual gold medal on Tuesday, but that didn't stop him from becoming the all-time winningest athlete in Olympic history. Phelps won a world record 19th Olympic medal with Team USA's gold-medal-winning performance in the 4x200-meter freestyle.

Phelps swam the anchor leg in USA's first-place finish. The team's 6:59.70 effort was hard-earned against a talented field. He swam the fastest leg for Team USA and earned his record-breaking medal in grand fashion.

It goes without saying that this is a remarkable achievement. He's entered hallowed ground in the world's preeminent international sporting event. Out of every great Olympic athlete at whom people have marveled for ages, Phelps stands alone as the guy.

The 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney were Phelps' first. He didn't win any medals, but he participated.

His Olympic career really began in 2004. He won six gold medals and two bronze in Athens. He turned in three Olympic record-breaking performances and set two world records. Phelps made it obvious that he was something special with each passing event.

We didn't know exactly how special until 2008 in Beijing. After winning four golds at the 2011 World Championships, Phelps' arrival for the Summer Games was highly anticipated. He was expected to threaten the record for the most first-place finishes in one Olympic games, and he didn't disappoint.

Phelps won eight gold medals in eight events and rewrote the record books with seven world-record-breaking performances. It was a transcendent athletic achievement, rivaling any major milestone in any sport. The summer games in Beijing immediately etched Phelps' name among the world's most iconic athletes and left everyone wondering how the 2012 games in London would go.

London hasn't been as prolific, but Phelps has taken three medals in four events. Only one of those bear the preferred golden gleam, but it's still an achievement. 

He finished fourth out of the eighth lane in the 400-meter individual medley, while American teammate Ryan Lochte took first. Lochte cost him another gold medal when he blew the anchor leg of the 4x100 freestyle, leaving Team USA with a silver. Phelps added to that silver with his second-place finish in the 200-meter butterfly on Tuesday. His gold in the 4x200 free was just gravy.

Phelps' two medals on Tuesday officially gave him what this generation already felt he had: invincibility. His name will live on through Olympic lore long after he hangs up his swim cap.

He was already one of this generation's greatest athletes, but he carved his name right next to the world's all-time greats in his Olympic swan song.