Sunday, August 24, 2008

Michael Phelps

While Usain Bolt has certainly been incredibly impressive, this has clearly been Michael Phelps's Olympics.

Michael Phelps was already the greatest swimmer of all-time prior to the Olympics. What this Olympics did was put distance between him and #2, whoever that is (Mark Spitz presumably, although I suppose their are other people in the mix, like Matt Biondi, Ian Thorpe, Tracy Caulkins, and Jenny Thompson).

Michael Phelps's real peers now are people like Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Michael Jordan, Jim Brown, Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong, Babe Ruth, and Jim Thorpe- whether he is the greatest athlete of all time.

If I were his career adviser, I would recommend against trying to repeat in the same events he has already been swimming. I think there is limiting returns in trying to dominate 200 free, 200 and 400 IM, and 100 and 200 fly. He's already proven he can win these races, and it won't alter how he is perceived historically.

So what events would I like to see Phelps swim:

100m and 200m Backstroke: I have seen some talk that he is considering racing the backstroke as an individual. I think that would be a great choice. It would certainly add to his legacy if he could start beating Aaron Piersol regularly in the backstroke, since Piersol is arguably the greatest backstroker of all time. I think it would also help his dominance in the IM, since his closest competitor is Ryan Lochte, and Lochte is the current 200m record holder and gold medal winner.

100m Freestyle: I think he would also benefit from taking on the 100m freestyle as an event. I suspect that as he ages, he will be able to maintain his speed more easily than his endurance. His best time is 47.51 seconds, and the current world record is 47.05, which was just set at this Olympics by Eamon Sullivan. Phelps's time of 47.51 seconds would have been a world record as recently as March of 2008, and only Sullivan and Alain Bernard have swum faster. I suspect that if Phelps were to concentrate on the 100m freestyle, he would be very much in the mix for the best in the world.

200m Breaststroke: This is the event that would truly cement Phelps's place in history. Currently, the record of 2:07.51 is held by Kosuke Kitajima of Japan, who is probably the greatest breaststroker of all time. Breaststroke is most peculiar of the swimming strokes, and so it is unusual for great swimmers in the other strokes to also be great breaststrokers. If Phelps were able to take down Kitajima, he would dominate over the sport of swimming more than any other athlete in any sport.
I think he could do it. In the IM, Phelps held his own in the breastroke against the other IM'ers. I don't think he could beat Kitajima using his current stroke- I think he would have to evolve the stroke to better fit his body type. It would probably continue the progression of breastroke, which has over time has increasingly evolved to look more like butterfly. Phelps is the greatest butterflyer of all time, and if he could modify the breastroke to take advantage of his poweful dolphin motion and elongate the glide even more than is already case in the breastroke, I think he could beat Kitajima.

If Phelps were to become a world record holder in the 100m backstroke, 200m backstroke, and 100m free, then I think he would clearly be in the discussion for the greatest athlete of all time. If he were to beat Kitajima and break the world record in the 200m breastroke, then I think that more than being in the discussion for the greatest athlete of all time, he would become the starting point in the discussion.

Go for it Mike.

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