Competitive swimming isn’t accorded much time in the national sports spotlight, but the sport has never been as close to the forefront of the American consciousness as during the Beijing Olympics.
The man responsible for that transformation is American phenom Michael Phelps.
The 23-year-old Baltimore native churned through the water to an individual Olympic-record eight gold medals in Beijing and established seven world standards in the process.
His accomplishments hold greater meaning for members of the eastern Maine swimming community, which is basking in the gold-medal afterglow of Phelps’ memorable Games.
“I was overwhelmed by what he did,” said Bangor High School swim coach Phil Emery, who is gearing up for his 39th season. “I don’t think, if you’re not a swimming person, you can really appreciate it.”
Many in the swimming world almost took for granted Phelps would vanquish all comers this summer. His dominating effort four years ago — at age 19 — at the Athens Games, where he won included six gold medals and two bronze, meant expectations for Beijing were high.
“His legacy was pretty well cemented before this Olympics ever happened,” said Mount Desert Island swim coach Tony Demuro.
While some observers thought the hype was setting Phelps up for failure, it seemed only to further motivate him. Everything seemed to fall into place during the competition, with no slipups, subpar performances or disqualifications.
Jason Lezak’s amazing anchor leg in the 400-meter free-style relay helped Phelps and the Americans eke out the gold and Phelps somehow snatched victory from the fingertips of Serbia’s Milorad Cavic in the 100 butterfly.
“He had to win three races (prelims, semifinals and finals) to win a gold for each event,” Demuro said. “He swam more than anyone ever has. To do what he did, the chances were not good.”
There have been constant comparisons between Phelps and American Mark Spitz (1972), the man whose medals record he eclipsed, but much has changed in swimming in the last 36 years. Timing technology, special swimsuits and improved training techniques have helped make 21st century swimmers faster.
Phelps took a more difficult road than Spitz, making 17 swims to earn eight gold medals. He also swam all four strokes — freestyle, butterfly, breaststroke and backstroke — while Spitz competed only in free and fly.
“His depth of competition was much greater and the range of events he swam was much greater,” said former University of Maine coach Jeff Wren, who now coaches at Husson College in Bangor.
“To be able to do that against the fields that are out there today is remarkable,” he said.
Emery said each man should be allowed to own his own piece of swimming history.
“It’s hard to compare the two because everybody is in their own time,” Emery said.
Former Bangor High and Colby College coach Robby MacDonald, who this winter will again write a swimming column for the BDN, said Phelps is the latest ambassador for the sport.
“When we started swimming (in the 1960s), you heard about Johnny Weissmuller, who won three golds at the 1924 Olympics,” MacDonald said. “He, Mark Spitz and now Michael Phelps are individuals who set a new standard in the sport.”
Wren said swimming, along with track and field and gymnastics, needs the Olympic Games coverage to demonstrate its excitement and intrigue to the American public.
“I’m certainly hoping that this will generate some real interest in the sport,” said Wren, who inherits a small group of swimmers at Husson.
Participation in swimming in the United States has been on the decline for more than 20 years, said Emery, who believes Phelps’ domination in Beijing should serve as a springboard to put more youth swimmers in Maine pools this winter.
Phelps and the American swimmers also made a positive impression when out of the water. Their soft-spoken, unassuming demeanor and their poised performances in the water put forth a positive image.
“The way the swimmers presented themselves to the public and the world can do nothing but help swimming,” Emery said. “I think everything we saw at this Olympics would make families and kids want to get involved in swimming.”
Demuro, who promotes team principles, wasn’t as thrilled about the individual attention garnered by Phelps. He pointed to Lezak’s unprecedented anchor leg in the 400 free relay, during which he passed world record-holder Alain Bernard of France to anchor the U.S. victory, as the highlight.
“It’s exactly what we’re trying to get out of high school swimmers,” Demuro said. “It’s you, as a group, coming together. To me, that was the swim of the Olympics.”
According to MacDonald, Phelps’ efforts demonstrate an unparalleled standard of dedication, determination, hard work, technique and performance under pressure that have made him the world’s most dominating swimmer.
“I think clearly he had a well-conceived race plan for each one of his events,” MacDonald said. “We’re all struck by his physical achievements in the water, but I think he was able to combine the physical and mental preparation for each race that perfectly married the two.”